Sylvia Lee Goh's painting, The Temptation, provides the best entry point into her world. This painting depicts Adam and Eve in the paradisiacal Garden of Eden - an episode drawn from Judeo-Christian iconography. However, Sylvia transports Adam and Eve to a luxuriant tropical tapestry of exotic but domesticated wildlife and plants. Eve with a red hibiscus in her hair holds a red apple before Adam. On the right, wrapped around the "tree of knowledge of good and evil" - a lone, temperate apple tree - is a white serpent.
The Temptation is a painting about a time before the fall; before Adam and Eve bit the apple. It depicts the last moments before the knowledge of good and evil was acquired - a time before they were expelled from paradise, a time before they discovered morality and shame, sexuality and pain. In these last moments, Adam and Eve, like children, were still in a state of perfect ignorance, free from any form of corruption.
As if to emphasize this innocence further, Sylvia has concealed Eve's genitalia and painted Adam devoid of it. They appear as pre-adolescent children who are unaware of their own nakedness and sexuality. In such a blissfully uncorrupted state, the depiction and curiosity about genitalia seem to have no place or meaning whatsoever.
I have chosen to start with The Temptation because it recount an episode in Judeo-Christian iconography that is so relevant to Sylvia Lee Goh's work. While most of her works are religious, the same sense of innocence, ignorance and perfection in the Garden of Eden penetrate all of them. In fact, the central theme in all her works are about the moments before the fall - before the expulsion from perfection and enrapture, and the painful acquiring of knowledge.
Sylvia's natural and material world are inhabited by all things beautiful: the perfect fruit and kueh, the untainted tropical wonderland full of exotic heliconias and orchids, yards of seamless silk and lace, lilies and lotuses displaying their fragile flory, intricate embroidery, carving and porcelain.
The children in her paradisiacal world pick flowers in a field of a thousand fragrant flowers or sit in their soft lacy frock by a river of lilies. The women - most of them are recognizably self-portraits - are lost in this world of abundance. Whether sitting, reclining or lying down, these children and women are never touched by even the faintest hint of worry, conflict or cynicism as though such a world was the only one. As though the fall and expulsion had not yet occurred.
When we consider that Sylvia is a catholic who spent 7 years of her childhood in a convent, and is an avid gardener who has surrounded her bungalow house with the most exotic of tropical plants and flowers, we can begin to understand her world better. In addition, perhaps through her colonial education and Peranakan family, she has absorbed the English - particularly 19th century Victorian - penchant for exotica, luxury and intricacy. The Chinese Peranakan, as we know, who prided themselves as having immaculate tastes, were the Malaysian equivalent of the landed gentry or the haute bourgeoisie of the Victorian times.
For Sylvia Lee Goh, time has stood still. Her world is still located within such an upbringing, class and melieu. She is totally immersed within this Malaysian Garden of Eden, this world of wonder, pleasure and abundance. Her women continue to sit in their embroidered voile kebayas, gossiping over afternoon teas and kueh. Or read a book, comfortably seated on Victorian cast-iron garden furniture, in a lush tropical garden with hibiscus flowers strewn all over. Or recline in complete repose among silks, flowers and embroidery. In her world, there is never any lack of natural and material abundance. There are always enough fruits and kueh to eat. The gardens and fields are always in full bloom. The clothes are always elegant and beautiful.
He utter commitment to celebrate Pleasure, Innocence and Abundance uncorrupted and unaffected by any worry or care seems so naive and frivolous especially in these times of anguish and economic crisis. It is in total contradiction to the real world. But of course Sylvia is unperturbed by psychology, economy or history. And it is precisely because of this narrowness and this indulgence in blissful ignorance that saves her from the contradictions and destructiveness of the upbringing and class she belongs to.
The themes, which emerge in Sylvia's works, are not entirely new. Artist like Cheong Soo Pieng, Eng Tay, Syed Thajudeen and Yuen Chee Ling have similarly attempted to reclaim some kind of innocence and pleasure of an earlier time. But these artists are essentially different from Sylvia - while Sylvia's world exist in a time before the fall, the worlds of these artists are located after the fall. They are artists who are burdened by the weight of knowledge, and who exist in post-paradisiacal world of good and evil but have chosen to reclaim the lost Garden of Eden. They exist on the outside, reminiscing and peering into that idyllic world of innocence, pleasure and abundance, wanting to be part of it but can never be. Their paintings become founded on the reclamation of this memory - a memory that often dissolves and lapses into mannerisms and nostalgia, and perhaps even a sort of orientalist voyeurism.
Sylvia's work never lapses into nostalgia because, strangely enough, she still lives and breathes in that world; it is not a memory. (Anyone who has met Sylvia before will immediately recognise that she actually belongs to a different era and sensibility). Her dislocation and narrowness become the strength that makes her work so believable and real. Dzulkifli Buyong comes to mind as a comparison to Sylvia. But Dzulkifli Buyong was after all a child when he made those memorable paintings of a world he was immersed in. When, as an adult, he tried to recapture that innocence and lost Garden of Eden in his paintings of cats, he too lapsed into unconvincing mannerisms.
Sylvia, unlike Dzulkifli Buyong, never grew up. She never lost her Garden of Eden.