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The Search of Beauty | The Artist |


Remembrance and
A Sense of Loss
Sylvia Lee Goh's paintings are as much an event as the artist herself. As a painter, she imparts the same kind of elegance and drama so integral of herself and her personality into her work. And the results are gratifying.

Sylvia's most haunting work, If Dreams Came True, features a plush Ophelia-like self -portait

A member of that almost extinct, rare breed of self-taught artists, Sylvia has had the advantage of finding her aesthetic path for herself; of not being shackled by the personal preference and pet peeves of the art lecturer and his kingdom of the art school.

Instead, with special insight, exacting commitment and an almost unconditional love for paint - right down to its very physicality - the artist has lifted herself out of the drudgery of the Sunday painter and discovered for herself a visual vocabulary, that is all her own.

What began with pattern-like compositions in coppertuling, evolved into the two dimensional rendering of pretty flowers and eventually arriving at the undeniably impressionistic styles and specific intentions, which dictates her current works.

The immediate response to Sylvia's paintings is to read them as wholly autobiographical. After all, in her still-lifes, she draws exclusively from her near obsession with the Baba-Nyonya background - the altars, the objects, their setting, even the colourful sweets that the ladies indulge; they all recall the traditions and practices and detail of a by-gone - "recently revived" era.

And, even if the artist simply smiles at the question, there can be little doubt that the woman who plays protagonist in most of these paintings is the artist herself.

Even when there are more than one actor in the work, the situations the artist has created are derived from her own personal experience. Hence, the role of the narrative plays a large part in her work as well - further enhancing the place of the autobiographical in her work.

It seems that Sylvia is testament that artists can never remove themselves from what they create, however self-indulgent it may appear.

However, this does not contain the entire scope of her body of work.

With tact and tenderness, Sylvia's paintings deal with moods and manners which are set on stages structured by her culture. They explore relationships and while not being distinctly feminist, draw on the state of women for their inspiration and relevance. Especially the woman who, on the brink of total emancipation is still held to her dominant culture and a distant value system.

For, although women are depicted as hopeful and independent - physical, spiritual... yet they seem in conflict with the ever present aura of sensuality expressed through hot colour, through the soft vulnerability of their stance and gesture and always through their constant depiction as objects (almost) of great beauty.

It created a tension -- somewhat coquettish and pliable, and yet defiant -- arising in a almost pugilistic confrontation between the viewer and the subject. It is as if, the artist's women are torn between a new found sense of independence and the need to continue to placate us, the viewer (society?) with things of beauty and values of old.

After all, the artist herself is the first to insist that feminism is far from the sentiments behind these works.

Further contemplation gives the work many complex layers. Certainly, one of the key reactions that arises from such contemplation is the overwhelming sense of loss, that the artist manages to convey to the viewer.

It is a powerful mood and is ever present in the work - first and foremost through the dominant motifs, symbol, subject and themes employed - the various paraphanelia; which is Peranakan, the rituals that go hand-in-hand with the paraphanelia; the reverence paid to nature.

They all hark at a time gone by - a defiant and gorgeous reminder of the incredible cost of progress. But much more than specifics, Sylvia manages to convey this loss through the rapport her subject strikes up with the viewer.

The solitary Nyonya bride, the wedding entourage, the funeral urns, the solitary figure amidst beautiful clutter, the plate of Nyonya kuih, friend in an Edenesque garden, friends whispering to each other - all transcend the whimsical, and fill the viewer with an aching sense of what can only be described as loss and aloneness - a state which is distinct from loneliness, for in 'aloneness" it is implied that the artist actually embraces the condition.

Even in adolescence, girls are shown almost withdrawn, sitting in fairy-like gardens, quietly anticipating that which is sensed but not quite known.

The artist seems to suggest to us that joy can only be of short duration - time and fate eventually severing the union or muting the intensity of affection. Even if her subject sometimes find companions, they are dictated by a kind of short termed inevitability.

Gesture, attitude and expression communicate the thoughts and emotions of the protagonist in these painting, and in doing so, once again imply an immediate personal narrative, but then immediately take us to a stage of common experience. And the reference to theatrics is ever present in the compositions she uses and the dramas which unfold. A sense of drama is clearly exploited in all the work. Even the still-lifes sit in their assigned and defined spaces, the protagonist or figure in the paintings (when she is present) using them like props or symbols that result in a coming together which reminds the viewer of lovers in absentia and the great divide that distance us from each other.

They become almost romantic sagas.

And as far as the physicality of each painting is concerned, here too, the artist shows herself to be a talented and committed practitioner. Paint is applied in distinct and careful layers with loving regard for hue and the overall colour harmonies in every painting. While the artist indulges in a rich and colourful palette, the careful consideration given to the harmony of hue, lends for some impressive results and instills in the work a kind of dream-like softness.

Contrast is introduced by the obvious us of textures. Sylvia employs this device almost carving out the shapes and details that emblazon her canvases. There is also an interesting quality of light which is present in her works. Using extremely subtle and gradual movement of hue and tone, her painting, the recent lotus triptych, are illuminated by a light that emphasises the solidity of mass, defines contours precisely and intensifies colour -- while retaining softness of memory.

It is clear who Sylvia artistic parents are. Impressionism obviously plays an integral part in her influences.

And without being antiquarian, these paintings capture a mood of romantic neoclassicism and rococco sentiment, but she is not overwhelmed by the traditions she has drawn on. Rather, she filters and focuses its matter in order to state the perceptions about culture, gender and self.

All of which is expressed through a very Asian relevance - not only in the context of the obvious subject matter, but in the almost fabric-like weave of detail, which has come to dominate the various grounds (fore, mid, back) of a Sylvia Lee Goh painting.

It is the same equal level of intricacy in these details with seemingly little regard for the more conventional "European" approach to depth and space which gives her work its, sometimes, almost charmingly naive individuality.

Characteristic of this style is its transcendence of the specific romantic. Although the painting and its subject are clothed in the flavour of period and set in the world of Peranakan roots, Sylvia distills from these elements a language without temporal or distinctive limit, a mode that allows form to bespeak mood and content.

Issues of the human condition - both social and personal, questions of identity and self and always the appreciation of great beauty, remain at the centre of these works..... in a unity rarely achieved in current figurative paintings.

by J Anurendra
Writer & Painter

To contact the artist, e-mail:

Message from Tan Sri Dr. Koh Tsu Koon

The Chief Minister of Penang, Malaysia

It is my pleasure to write this message for a much respected artist like Sylvia Lee Goh.

In the last 11 years she has exhibited in 28 joint exhibitions, with top Malaysian artists and in prestigious galleries. She was also one of th artists in a National Art gallery exhibition to Argentina in 1995 and to Indonesia in 1989, China and Thailand have been other venues. It speaks a lot to be included in a "Salon Malaysia" exhibition.

It is most fitting that the Penang State Art Gallery hosts her exhibition, as she is Penang born. Even though she had resided away from Penang for the last 35 years, her heart is here.

I know, many viewers will, in some way be touched by the figuratives, as there are hidden messages. Interpreting a painting is an exercise in introspection - you are what you interpret. To appreciate a painting, one has to invest a little time to try to understand what it is all about. It is amazing what one can draw out of a painting.

It is my hope that Sylvia Lee Goh will continue to paint and exhibit to awaken people to what is around them - to feel, and see and act accordingly. She is a determined woman artist in the prime of her creativity and I wish her all the best.


Welcoming Tan Sri Dr. Koh Tsu Koon, Chief Minister of Penang to The first solo ehibition  of Sylia Lee Goh's Two Deades of Art "From the Heart" 1978-1998

Date: 30 May 1998

Time: 11.00am.

Venue: The Penang State Art Gallery, Dewan Sri Pinang, Penang, Malaysia

Sylvia presening her book, documenting 54 coloured paintings on this exhibition to Dr. Koh in appreciation for offciating the exhibition

A gift from the artist entitled "Phoenix(s)
 and Koay" being  presented to Dr. Koh.

Sylvia explaining the  concept of the painting to Dr. Koh.