An air of mystery pervades HURT NEED UNDO LIVE. The two-part solo exhibition by Jerome Kugan is filled with symbols like third eyes, skulls, sensuous flowers and figures that invite the viewer to search for their meaning. Part one of the show, a series of triptychs painted on wood, large woven talismans, and small painted objects, is currently on show at The Back Room in Kuala Lumpur. Together, the works seem to hint at some kind of invented mythology. Guided by the mantra-like nature of the title and the word “resist”, which appears across the works, it might be read as a journey of transformation and persistence.
The exhibition catalogue describes the titles of the triptychs such as The Sign and The Unyielding as “tarot-like”, and it is tempting to read them this way. Traditionally, triptychs, usually three boards, were devotional objects used by Christians in the Middle Ages and often depicted scenes from the bible. A triptych can either split an image into three or depict a narrative across three panels. In Kugan’s work, the triptychs are of the latter type.
With a couple of exceptions, the outer boards of Kugan’s triptychs feature symmetrical images. They are largely rendered in bright colours that pop against the white of The Back Room’s walls. While it’s easy to map a narrative on some such as The Changed, which depicts a human figure with flowers in place of its head and genitals between two butterfly wings, it’s harder to read others. For example, despite its straightforward title, The Sign evades obvious meaning. It features a central panel with an eye between two small figures and a circle of heads that both face and look away from the eye. While outstretched palms are painted on the two outer boards. What the sign is meant to be isn’t obvious on the surface.
Kugan, who grew up Catholic, but left the faith in his teens, was inspired by triptychs in Catholic art. Particularly, smaller triptychs that were made for people to use in their homes. However, Kugan’s triptychs don’t recall Catholic imagery, which is intentional. “I wanted to be…amorphous and I didn’t want it to be as if I’m referencing one religion more than another.” The work has drawn inspiration from all kinds of religious iconography. Once, while living in an area of KL where there were a lot of Indian temples, he would visit the temples and shops selling religious icons in wonder, “So baroque, so like fantastical a lot of them and it’s just a visual feast, and I wanted my works…to be like that…[an]explosion of colours.”
Jerome Kugan, The Unyielding (2020), acrylic on wooden chopping board, 30 x 57 cm (triptych). Image credit: The Back Room KL.
The religious undertones and inspirations of Kugan’s work contrasts with his nude figures. Though interestingly the figures do not have breasts or genitals. Kugan has multiple reasons for this. For one, his own experience as a queer activist has opened his presentations of gender, “When I first decided to draw and paint human figures I wanted the bodies to represent queerness. Queerness for me isn’t so much what we’re born with, more about how we express ourselves and how we want others to perceive us. I think the ambiguous gender comes from that,” he says.
Another reason is the general conservatism amongst Malaysian audiences. “We have a lot of censorship, [we] still can’t really talk about gender or sexuality in a really meaningful way in public…I think this has created this sense of embarrassment or taboo about the body…When I started painting the human body I wanted them to be nude. I like the form, to expose something. At the same time I don’t want people to be embarrassed by it or squeamish about it…By removing the breasts and the genitals, it made people look at the body in a different way.” Though the genitals are not missing. Kugan says, “You have to look for them [in the paintings].”
The nude form first made an appearance in Kugan’s work in 2017 during his first solo show, Red & Gold. In fact, some of the figures that first appeared in that show are repeated. However, the figures have evolved. The colour palette and tone in Red & Gold are darker. In the 2017 show, two figures, one black, one white, dance while two larger figures loom above them manipulating invisible marionette strings with the words “DANCE, DANCE, YOU LITTLE FAIRIES”, scrawled at the top of the painting. By contrast in a more recent work from 2019, the two dancing figures appear on a solid red background titled simply Background Dancers. While the face of one figure looks asleep, the slight menace of its 2017 echo is absent in this more recent piece.
Another continuation from previous work is the use of materials. In Red & Gold, Kugan used HIV medication packages and cigarette foil in his pieces. These materials are also utilised in HURT NEED UNDO LIVE, notably in the large woven Talisman pieces that feature the title of the show and figures on HIV medication packages that make up the the majority of the second part of the show. In general, the materials used in the show are ordinary objects such as wooden chopping boards bought at Daiso or wooden spoons. The triptychs for example were painted on wooden chopping boards. The use of these every day objects was in part born out of economic necessity.
However, Kugan’s use of HIV medication packaging is deliberate. When first using it in 2017, he discussed with friends if he should use the material, “I’m sharing a part of myself that I don’t know how people will take, there’s still a lot of stigma around the issue. But I thought, let’s just put it out there.” Another reason that made him pause was the idea of being pigeon-holed, “I don’t really want to be the poster boy for this HIV thing. I don’t want to be known as the Malaysian HIV artist. I just want to be an artist.” In the end, Kugan decided it was important for his own journey of self acceptance to use the material.
As a whole, the recyled materials are most interesting when their original forms are perceived. In some pieces, like Resist (2019), the artwork, a figure with its back to the viewer squatting with its hands on its head below the words “RESIST”, interact with the packaging. It almost looks like the figure is facing a wall painted with Efavir packaging. This particular composition provokes many interpretations as to what the word resist could mean here. While pieces like a series of three painted wooden spoons and a paper mask painted gold with the words “FREAK” emblazoned across it feel a little out of sync with the rest of the pieces. Visually and text wise they feel like digressions from the rest of the show.
Jerome Kugan, Resist (2019), graphite and acrylic on HIV medication, 25 x 43 cm, Image credit: The Back Room KL.
The inclusion of some of the objects might have worked better if the exhibition had gone with the “chaotic hanging” Kugan envisioned. He wanted to hang them like icons in a church or temple. However, he deferred to Liza Ho, founder of The Back Room and Ellen Lee, gallery assistant at The Back Room. “I didn’t want to be one of those difficult artists,” he jokes. Yet I can see the appeal of Kugan’s original vision. A more disorderly hanging melds better with the images and themes of the work.
Overall, there is a playful tone of the works in HURT NEED UNDO LIVE. There’s an unexpected whimsy for a show that features and focuses on the nude, even when those nudes are engaged in “perverted” poses as Kugan puts it such as a threesome in Trinity 1 (in pink) (2020). At times, I wanted more of these moments of playful perversion. Though by and large the figures are intimate rather than sexual. Despite Kugan’s consideration of his local audience’s sensibilities, his work is still a welcome exception in Malaysia in terms of its frank depictions of the body and the possibilities for its transformation.