Christine Ay Tyoe’s second exhibition at White Cube presents the artist in a darker, pensive, more Gothic mood than her more colourful debut here in 2016. Half the works shown are a series of aluminium etching plates on which the artist has drawn in black ink a bestiary of her familiar grotesques. Their monochrome scheme is carried over to the selection of recent canvases that share a reduced palette of dominantly black on an off-white surface that emphasise the energy of the artist’s expressive mark making. ‘The Comrade’ (2018) is a scene of Gothic horror with several monstrous bodies writhing together. Just left of centre, Ay Tjoe sketches the profile of a skull and just next to it what appears to be a head throwing back its mouth wide in a scream. Just right of centre there is a suggestion of another phantom skull carefully constructed by the artist leaving exposed the bone white ground though a mist of grey blurs.
Ay Tjoe is quoted as saying that the dualism of the psyche and the relationship of the ‘potential darkness’ of the subconscious with the increasing exposure of our social identity is of interest. Part of the artist’s expression of this dualism is encouraging the viewer to find their own interpretations of forms within her masses of gestural marks. ‘The Comrade’ is the only work in the show with a title that suggests a definite subject and one could be drawn to suggest this, with its associations to the cadres of the Indonesian Communist Party, could make the work a veiled allusion to the violent suppression of the Party during the Indonesian Genocide of 1965-6. Descriptions of the face-to-face nature of the killings in the Genocide find a reflection in the figures in Ay Tjoe’s paintings, locked together in a ‘to the death’ struggle.
The diptych ‘Floating Never Too High’ (2018) places one canvas above the other creating a monumental altar piece scaled work that makes the most of White Cube’s grandest gallery. An explosive mass of stokes erupting up the canvas suggest more bodies struggling together or a single gargantuan figure. The scale of painting and its relationship to ‘The Comrade’ suggest a comparison to it being the artist’s version of a ‘Last Judgment’ with its own Beast of the Abyss, while its writhing mass of limbs also recalls Rachel Kneebone’s baroque ceramics.
These demonic forms also appear in the three smaller ‘Docile Black’ paintings that seem to be studies of creatures from Gothic fantasies. ‘Docile Black 2’ has the beak of a Raven and Ay Tjoe’s rapid oil stick marks come to represent the bird of ill omen’s feathers, while ‘Docile Black 1’ looks like a giant flea with legs flicking out on the right and another sketched skull on its back. These same monsters are subjects of the thirteen etching plates works titled ‘Always Floating In A Constant Distance ‘(2018). Numbers 2, 3 and 13 of the series have similar combinations of globular bodies and fanged mouths from the paintings, while others are strange chimera that could be exotic plants. The grey aluminium plate and the framing gives them the aspect of an old master print series like Goya’s ‘Witches’. Ay Tjoe lives outside of Bandung amongst forested Javan hills. These works also recall the botanical studies of the area that Stamford Raffles commissioned while administrator of Java in the 1800s.
This is a wonderful body of work, passionate and reflective of an artist who is genuinely pensive about the conflicts and stresses of contemporary life. The diptych ‘Pleasant Breath’ (2018) is notable for its splash of red at the summit of a triangular form that could be read as a volcano’s plume, ejecting the cloud of black marks that cover the left-hand panel. As a summation of Ay Tjoe’s work this expulsion of darkness represents the artist’s drive to expose and release the blackest feelings within us.