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  • Feb 09, 2018

Luke Heng’s “After Asphodel”

Installation view of LUKE HENG’s "After Asphodel" at Pearl Lam Galleries, Gillman Barracks, Singapore, 2017

The ancient Greeks had clear ideas about what to expect in the afterlife: the shades of heroes were lauded in the Fields of Elysium, the wicked were condemned to eternal torment in Tartarus, and those who led unremarkable lives were herded into the bleak Asphodel Meadows to forever wander its dim landscape without memory or hope. At Pearl Lam Galleries at Gillman Barracks in Singapore, local artist Luke Heng transliterated this liminal “non-place” in 16 recent works in his solo exhibition, “After Asphodel,” which included paintings in oil, sculptural wax works and a site-specific installation.

While Heng’s earlier paintings have involved subtle layerings of color and sweeping abstract forms, over the past two years the artist has pursued a more discreet, formalized approach in seeking to embody the act of painting. As a result, Heng’s latest abstractions, namely the “Betwixt” and “Non-Place” series (all works 2017), are comparatively more austere, and they glow with many-layered pigments, primarily in palettes of indigo and white.

LUKE HENG, Non-Place, 2017, oil on linen, 188 × 165 cm each. Courtesy the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.

Heng composes using a pouring technique: he coats his large-scale canvases with multilayers of oil pigment and decants a bit of thinner over the topmost veneer, which allows delicate runnels of dissipated paint to reveal pigmented strata beneath. Dense cascades of color fields are thus injected with gestural “brushstrokes,” a process which imposes a palimpsest of drips and decomposition that disclose underlying tints of color that Heng refers to as “pockets of space.” For viewers, it is this sudden twist in perception—that these are abrasions in the paint, rather than applications—that transfigures the anatomy of his canvases.

Two eponymous paintings from “Betwixt,” for example, present deceptively simple vertical lacerations of what appear to be two indigo “brushstrokes” on an expanse of white—but the blues here are, in fact, exposed substrate. This pair of strokes affirm the fundamentally two-dimensional nature of the canvas, while in each of the seven paintings in his “Non-Place” series, Heng invites viewers to intuit dimension and depth between four staggered “brushstrokes”—a configuration which bestows a fundamental perspective to the works. In these, the artist’s diluted reductions tease out a sense of spatial recognition—of a vague construct, or perhaps of distant, luminous figures in a hazy field. These restrained, somewhat aloof compositions are tempered by the odd cluster of air bubbles or by tensions of encrusted paint. Expansive and fluid, Heng’s layered indigos and whites resemble traditional Japanese kasuri textiles, whose separately dyed fibers converge into blurred, expressive pattern.

Alongside his paintings, Heng displayed installations that reiterate what he refers to as “perception of what a painting should be.” One of these, Untitled (Like Death is Such a Bad Thing), was a compressed cube of shaved paraffin wax, elevated on a spindly steel platform. Its lustrous layers, which resemble hoar frost, are the sculptural embodiment of the artist’s painting process. In another installation, titled Flatline, Heng manipulates the eye by layering shadow and light so that white step-like forms (which ascend, descend, then appear to merge into the gallery walls) recalibrate and, in a minute slippage of perception, allow the viewer to infer the flat planes of a painting. The exhibition’s outlier was Memento, a small representational painting depicting the asphodel flower, a type of lily whose name summons up that mythical landscape of regret.

Heng’s works in “After Asphodel,” with their material allusions to the insubstantial, were induced in part by a recent death in the artist’s family. Seen in this context, Heng’s gentle reductions of color and not-color, seen and unseen, become lucid intimations of both spatial and mortal transience.

Luke Heng’s “After Asphodel” is on view at Pearl Lam Galleries, Gillman Barracks, Singapore, until February 25, 2018.

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