What is pop art?
Perhaps the most iconic image of pop art, the one that most people are familiar with, would be Andy Warhol's Marilyn Monroe prints. Or the Campbell soup can paintings.
Though many artists with fine art background might disagree about its artistic value, pop (short for popular) art became the art movement to define the 20th century.
And this was basically the topic of discussion brought up by Raja Ahmad at his RA Fine Arts gallery on Wednesday evening at an event to celebrate the works of the late Jeri Azhari, Amir Zainorin and Azmin Hussein. The panel speakers for Art Talk: Pop Fiction and Pop Practice was an impressive lineup -- Syed Nabil of NN Gallery, Tan Sei Hon of Balai Senilukis, and Mr. Zabas (from Galeri Petronas, if I am not mistaken).
I attended, curious to know the thoughts of these individuals fronting Malaysia's art industry, and also because I think Raja Ahmad is doing an important job in supporting the art scene with his series of lectures and discussions. I feel that other galleries should follow in his footsteps -- not just concern themselves with the sale of art but also add value to the industry by spreading knowledge to their audience.
There were about twenty guests that day. As always, I saw the usual suspects...Shutter-happy Pakharuddin was one of them. I was glad to see Tan Sei Hon again. We were both lecturing at a private college some years back and I remember he taught my students about art history and appreciation. He is now a curator at the Balai!
It was interesting to observe how the talk progressed. The panel speakers, much to my disappointment, said very little. I was really looking forward to the thoughts of Syed Nabil and the rest, who I am sure are much knowledgeable on the topic. Perhaps it was time constraint, nerves, or a little of both that they suffered.
But still, I had had my hopes. Especially since there is very little that the Malaysian public know of pop art. It isn't exactly a major movement in Malaysia. Quite possibly, Jeri Azhari was the only Malaysian artist who ever really got involved -- and carved a name for himself -- in that style of work.
By the end of the talk, we were none the wiser about pop art. Pakharuddin probably summed it best when asked to give his comments: "I'm confused about pop art. My brain is popping out!"
Back home, I dusted my art history books and thought back to what I was taught about pop art.
Although pop art is mostly associated with American artists such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jasper Johns, the art movement actually started in the UK in the 1950s. It probably began with this group of artists, The Independent Group, who challenged the traditions of fine or "high" art by focusing on popular culture that was accessible to the public -- the advertising that was bombarding the society, daily news, comic strips, movies, product design, etc.
Pop art is defined by the use of everyday images in expressing art. It was art based on the things that the popular mass had access to and could relate to -- things they associated with daily, on tv, in the newspapers, at the supermarket, etc.
It came about as a result of post-war consumerism in a more affluent society. The market was flooded with products, the economy was on the rise, it was a happy time for everyone. Therefore, much of what you see of pop art is bold, vibrant, loud, in-your-face images.
In my opinion, pop art became such a huge movement in the US probably because the nation didn't have a strong history in visual art in the first place, and wanted to embrace something so desperately for itself. Perhaps it was a need to create an identity for themselves, an American identity with which they could call their own and with which they could take the lead.
Even if that was so, at least, the Americans could now lay some claim to the pop art movement as theirs. But what about Malaysia? What can we lay claim to?
Love me in my batik by Joseph Tan
I remember in the 1970s, some Malaysian artists like Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa were concerned about the direction of Malaysian art, the peribumi content. They asked among themselves "what constituted Malaysian art, Malaysian content, Malaysian identity, Malaysian originality?"
Sadly, no one had the answer then, and no one has the answer now.