Written by Zena Khan
The Quest is a 2014 oil on canvas painting by Goh Chai Seng. A gothic work with dominant bright elements interspersed, Goh has deftly brought a thoroughly contemporary, personal concept to life, with the aid of his highly proficient painterly skills.
Measuring six feet by six feet, the seed of The Quest was planted in Goh’s mind from his weekly visits to tend the grounds of a palm oil estate. Goh senses an atmosphere of mystery in the silence of the estate, enhanced by the falling leaves and abundance of palm oil trees, which have a strong tie to the physical and economic development of Malaysia. As such, he postulates the estates themselves are each imbibed with a “life” of their own that relates to the stories behind them. The long strand of palm leaves crowding over the grey figurative element and religious carved symbols spread out over the canvas expresses the overpowering sense of mystery Goh notices. Highlighted in bright yellow, a fairly new addition to his colour palette, the leaves are a stark contrast to the rest of the painting’s colours, and thus are rendered as a dominant element despite the simplicity of their silhouette.
Sat on the left of the canvas is a portrait of Goh’s grandfather. An elderly Chinese man, he stares unseeingly into the distance, hinting at the loss of his ability to see sharply as he ages. The artist comments that since the death of his grandmother, his grandfather became increasingly withdrawn, less vocal and often lost in his own thoughts. Goh links both the loss of his grandmother and the decline in his grandfather’s eyesight to his inability to understand what weighs on the older man’s mind. Depicting a faraway expression on his grandfather lends another dimension to the sense of mystery in The Quest. Portraiture has long been a tool used by painters to depict not only the visual appearance but also the inner essence of a subject. Goh fulfills this criterion in a subtle yet effective manner by capturing a melancholic expression, and as such his superlative technical skill is easily shown.
The Quest might utilize Goh’s traditional painterly approach but demonstrates a shift in subject matter and a less “crowded” visual. By merging the figurative element with the imagery of foliage, he presents both symbols of “mass narrative” and “mini narrative”, all representing several layers of meanings. While the imagery is still finely detailed and fills the entire canvas, the artist eschews the densely packed minutiae of his earlier paintings in an attempt to focus deeper conceptual meaning within key icons, creating an easily relatable visual for his audience.
Goh’s works conventionally have been a product of living in Klang and are often infused with religious iconography. These are still involved in The Quest, albeit in a lesser quantity. Their inclusion ties in strongly to the traditional and religious values to which Goh holds firm. However the artist has noticed a shift in the pace of his environment, where it once was serene and slow in comparison to Kuala Lumpur, the tempo of daily life has sharply quickened and tradition slowly recedes. In his newer works, Goh comments that the rapid pace of urban living, which he considers more influenced by perception than reality, is no longer avoidable. The mass of information that is now readily available to him, along with the changes in his landscape, have been major contributors to the subtle shifts in his compositions and icons.
The Quest continues Goh’s quest to rationalize his observations of the world around him through his artistic practice. The beautifully finished complex composition, with its dominant figurative element, hints at the inextricableness of modern life and tradition in Goh’s rapidly developing physical landscape, demonstrating the particular ability contemporary art holds to describe the shifts occurring locally in the twenty-first century.
Title: The Quest
Artist: Goh Chai Seng
Size: 186 cm x 186 cm
Medium: Oil on Canvas