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Where's the frame

Jean Watt

July 3, 2024 6:17 PM


Areena Ang’s practice has been shifting in recent years, most noticeably in a break from the figurative in their painting. Rather than a moving away from however, this is a moving alongside, with depictions of objects and structures finding away into a practice as their own embodied subject. Jean Watt spoke to Ang about this progression; about the painters that inspire their work; and finding new ways of storytelling.

Areena Ang in their studio


In the early years of Ang’s painting practice their canvases were filled with vibrant, cartoony figures. Navigating the pandemic and the realities of producing work during this period, their style began to evolve, becoming more subtle in its colour palette and less gestural in its choice of tableaux. This culminated in a degree show at The Slade School of Fine Art in 2022 which brought together a body of work moved by their reflections on grief in all its forms: ecological, familial and personal. A painting of a sofa almost sinking in on itself, as if containing a void (There is never enough time), a wooden shed splintering apart, (Splinter), came together with strange fantastical figures in Desire Path. Despite their differences in subject, the paintings contained a shared fluidness, existing in the unsettling, dream-like world Ang had begun to devise. 


Areena Ang, There is never enough time, 2022

The sofa work had been the jumpstart for Ang’s interest in the depiction of objects, or more specifically, “the inherent life that exists in certain objects”. Originally planning to paint a figure seated on the cushions, Ang spontaneously subtracted the subject during the process— “I realised I was beginning to make something that was already embodied, that the work began to demand different things. I believe that this is the moment I realised that painting is truly a negotiation”. This feels like a natural and smoothly articulated progression from figuration, imbuing the inanimate with humanlike possibilities. Ang is clear on the fact that despite this newly developed motif of upholstery in their practice, these works are not about domesticity. Instead, the sofas engage with a more established lineage within the history of painting as a location for a sitter, which Ang has removed. In doing so, the furniture acts as a proxy for an absent subject, occupying a void or non-place rather than a known site. 


This builds on Ang’s interest in the aesthetics of set design, theatre and literature, citing particular inspiration from Martin Wong’s Malicious Mischief exhibition at Camden Art Centre last year. Drawn to the compositional qualities of Wong’s Storefronts series, Ang proposes that “there is a flatness to them which I am interested in using”, continuing, “perspective is very much a Renaissance, classical European idea. It isn’t embedded in how I grew up in Malaysia or began to understand art or how to place things compositionally, I’m always trying to bring that unique perspective into my work”.  A resistance to reproducing perspective encourages the paintings to function more like a threshold to the viewer, one which is inviting but perhaps uncrossable. This is most apparent in Karmatic Cycle, which Ang showed as part of RE:REPRESENTATION at James Fuentes in New York earlier this year, an ongoing series of Ang’s own interpretations of storefronts. Heavy metal doors part to reveal a mattress piled with layers of distended duvet and cushions, their bulbousness obscuring their forms. This use of recognisable materialities in unrecognisable environments is key in Ang’s rendering of uncanny, imaginary worlds.  


For Ang, the reveal is enough. “This is an ongoing body of work for me. There’s something that keeps bringing me to return to the simplicity, it's almost demure nature. It is unassuming in its limitation of elements, yet confident and confrontational”. This painting furthers their interest in literary metaphors, splitting the canvas into thirds to symbolise a beginning, middle and end using the three-act dramaturgical structure as a narrative framing. The idea of ‘staging’ characters in composition, the enlivening of couches, and other ephemera and how they become staged are crucial elements to the work. 


Ang draws on a range of painters that have influenced their practice, inspired not necessarily by a shared subject matter or style but by “their bravery, their lack of fear and unrelenting trust in themselves”. These include painters like Nicole Eisenman, who does not shy away from overcrowding a canvas, and Jana Euler, whose unique use of framing and installation – such as using vinyl text appliqués alongside paintings –  has inspired them to consider the potentials for staging in their own practice. Ang is particularly drawn to artists who “lean into their own maximalism”. Language and painting are closely linked for Ang, inspired not only by painters who use text alongside their paintings but by a desire to explore the “semiotics of objects”. 

Areena Ang, Karmatic Cycle, 2023


Most recently, Ang has been working on a trench coat commission for Casimir Pulaskiday, a bespoke clothing store in Tokyo. Painting a version of their 2022 work, Mouthpiece, bared teeth on a gummy comb, the process has pushed Ang out of their comfort zone. Alongside this, there is a longitudinal painting in progress for the upcoming group exhibition at The Approach, On Feeling, curated by Peter Davies. Here, Ang has chosen to reintroduce figures into the composition — “there is no such thing as linear progression in a practice, as much as you think there is… you will always be pulled back into the past”. Although only in its underpainting stage, three figures ballet dance inside a hollow tunnel, emerging into the fore. Ang feels this type of internal architecture has a clear relationship to our bodies — structures which could barricade us but also encase and carry us. This draws back to Karmatic cycle, whose metal doors and pillows hover between hostility and protection. There is a back and forth between these two poles throughout the practice, or as Ang more precisely clarifies, “a sense of circularity”. Again, this winds back around to There is never enough time, the sofa which threatens to dissolve into the white core of its centre. Ang’s practice might be in a moment of change but it is not without careful consideration — a body of paintings is growing which are returned to and revisited, coming together to form a sentence. 




You can follow Areena Ang on their website.