Written by Zena Khan
Smoking Tiger is the latest painting by popular Malaysian contemporary artist Ali Nurazmal Yusoff. Measuring four feet by eight feet, this expressive monochromatic oil on canvas piece represents a deviation from the artist’s previous colourful, hyper-realism style of painting, hinting on the beginning of new directions within his repertoire.
Smoking Tiger features two figures, viewers will be familiar with from Ali’s past works: a smoking man and a tiger. To the right of the canvas, sits a man, smoking a cigarette. He blows plumes of smoke across the canvas into the face of the snarling tiger, who fills up the left side of the painting. Unlike Ali’s previous smoking man works which tended to feature self-portraits from a frontal perspective, the unknown smoking man here is shown in side profile. Neither the man nor the tiger have been rendered in Ali’s traditional realism style, instead they are the result of an expressive style of working. The monochromatic pallette and expressive strokes seem to mark a discovery by Ali that he is still able to stir powerful responses within his viewer even with a restricted visual language. The quick, feathery brushwork is a contrast to Ali’s past neatly painted works, and the development of an entirely new aesthetic generates excitement for the artist’s audience. Ali has commented that he considers his finished works to be a series of studies on his quest to creating an ‘ultimate painting’, and this is precisely how Smoking Tiger is to be appreciated.
Expressive mark-making is not the only new feature for viewers. Ali is known for his brightly coloured canvases, predominantly in vivid reds and greens. Smoking Tiger however is presented in black and white, with shades of grey. Interestingly, Ali did not use black paint in this work. Several different colours were mixed together to achieve the shades of grey and black in Smoking Tiger; having resulted in unusual tones within the black and grey. The immense amount of layering involved in mixing the colours adds depth and creates three-dimensionality. Black and white are important as colours for artists mostly for their ability to define areas of light and dark. By painting Smoking Tiger monochromatically, Ali conducts an exercise in training his eye to understand all the values and tones that exist within an image. As such, he expands his knowledge on colour theories and the behaviour of colour. Essentially for a realism artist such as Ali, his ability to imbue life into his works is a direct result of an almost scientific understanding on the properties of objects, colour, light and shadow. Given the work’s primary function to experiment with and improve on Ali’s painterly skills, Smoking Tiger can be seen as a mark of dedication to the formal tennants of his artistic practice.
Amidst the talents that have emerged over the last few years on Malaysia’s contemporary art scene, Ali stands out with his flawlessly executed paintings. His witty scenes of modern life bear influences of the hyper-realism style invented during the Renaissance period, and the ease with which he produces his large-scale, figurative canvases speaks strongly to his natural painterly abilities. Earlier works such as Imitation Master After Caravaggio show the artist’s mastery of techniques first developed during the Renaissance. Ali has clearly mastered chiaroscuro, where he utilises light and dark to effectively represent three-dimensionality, and sfumato, generating smooth, unified subjects through blending colour to produce realism on a two-dimensional canvas. Much like Renaissance masters such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Ali’s control on his techniques stem from a thorough understanding of the properties of colour, and the principles of colour theory. Colour theory extends not just to the practical guidance of colour mixing and application but also into colour harmony, tonality, shading and the suprisingly specific properties of black and white. Indeed, Smoking Tiger represents the artist’s in depth explorations into the boundaries of his personal understanding of colour in his attempt to elevate his technical abilites, and therefore his entire artistic range, to a whole new level.
Title: Smoking Tiger
Artist: Ali Nurazmal Yusoff
Size: 137 cm x 243 cm
Medium: Oil on canvas