CHRISTINE AY TJOE, Greed and Greed 2, 2016, oil on canvas, diptych: 200 × 340 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy White Cube, London. 

Christine Ay Tjoe

White Cube
Indonesia UK

Christine Ay Tjoe’s current show of new paintings at White Cube’s Bermondsey space in London marks a period of transition for the artist both in her career and in the stylistic changes of her paintings. Each work on display shares a strong direction of movement; in the case of the larger diptych, Greed and Greed 2 (all works 2016), a red mass appears to pursue a floating green form. In different arrangements, these shifting “demonic” forms of reddish brown and magenta appear in several recent pieces, which are more angular and clearly delineated than in the artist’s earlier work. In some paintings, hands, claws and other organs protrude. 

To appreciate the tactile nature of Ay Tjoe’s paintings requires one to get up close to the pictures and observe the glazes and washes of color, along with the artist’s expressive line. Ay Tjoe also uses a half-tone effect for layering color and texture, in areas where paint is applied and then rubbed back to reveal the layer beneath. In some areas, patches of red are aggressively scratched away. Ay Tjoe’s alacrity in her painting process is evident, but there is also a virtuoso-like use of techniques displayed here, which reveals her roots in the disciplines of printmaking and possibly an even deeper exploration of textile and craft traditions.

CHRISTINE AY TJOE, Demonic Possession, 2016, oil on canvas, 200 × 230 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy White Cube, London.

Scratching beneath the surface of Ay Tjoe’s expressionism exposes an underpinning of work that plays out the interaction between religious ritual, spirituality and cultural identification that forms her personal aesthetic. A chthonic, primal mythology is expressed across the paintings in the exhibition, linking narratives of demonic possession, a “fall from grace” and the conflict between embodied light and dark forces as seen in Greed and Greed 2Demonic Possession has three of what appear to be chthonic demon characters, suspended or flying with claws extending, and suggestions of eyes and teeth that emerge toward the viewer. A pair of “instruments”—mechanical devices or vessels that feature throughout Ay Tjoe’s paintings—are thinly drawn in above. On the right, what looks like an ominous, nuclear submarine calls to mind another spectral ship that became a harbinger for the apocalypse—the boat in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899). More evocatively, the atmosphere of eschatology that hangs over Ay Tjoe’s work can be traced back to Conrad; though, possibly, the connection gains more urgency now that the parables of post-colonial holocaust and fear of the “other” are being brought to the forefront again in today’s globalized world.

Ay Tjoe appears to be committed to expose the dark underbelly of the artist’s psyche. In Greed and Greed 1 and Instrument of the Highest Player 1, certain devices corrupt and penetrate the bodies of both the demonic and the seemingly benign. In the latter, the violent red ejections recall the appearance of stigmata, another piece of Christian iconography and scripture that manages to tightly bind together the quest for atonement and grace with physical laceration. There is no equivocation that something dark is bearing down on us in the dragon of Greed and Greed 1. This is the end of days—the Book of Revelation’s vision of Armageddon.

The lasting impression from the exhibition is the exuberance of an artist fully confident in her work, who is just hitting her stride. It also points to the rare occurrence of a substantial exhibition by a woman artist from Southeast Asia in the UK, showing that with such talents coming from the region, more should be done to showcase their works in Europe.   

CHRISTINE AY TJOE, Greed and Greed 1, 2016, oil on canvas, 180 × 200 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy White Cube, London.