Having had the honour of following Haslin Ismail’s career since the very beginning, I can safely vouch for a genuine sense of evolution on the artist’s part. My first encounter with the artist’s works was in a small gallery in Lucky Garden, Bangsar. Owned by the late Mohd Nurul Husni, Kebun Mimpi – or Garden of Dreams – was a hideaway for blossoming artists, and Haslin’s imaginative works that delved deep into the recesses of fantasy and fiction were definite attention-grabbers.
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Notable were his artist’s books. You needed to wear white gloves, like a museum custodian, to flick from one fragile page to the next, each one pregnant with the artist’s markings and mayhem. His larger artworks then were no less experimental. Cardboard, string, and all manner of found objects dangled precariously from the canvases, and altogether, his works encapsulated the qualities of science fiction and fantasy – his two great loves.
Today, these levels of experimentation have paved way for a more contemplated form of art; Haslin, I can safely say, has matured into an artist with a truly distinct style of his own. Indeed, looking back at this early exhibition from 2008 is perhaps a tad ambitious, and certainly, too far-flung in the past for most of us to analyse his latest works. His last solo exhibition makes for a better point-of-comparison. Held just last year, he exhibited a body of work at Rimbun Dahan, Kuang, the swansong to his residency at that green oasis of an artist’s residency. The works were larger than life. Paintings towered above the average gallery-goer, the number of ink drawings and watercolours on paper could have formed a queue to the moon, and the narrative in his subject matter was more considered than ever before.
Ecstacy 153x153cm Acrylic on Canvas (1)
Nature also played a strong role in this body of work. Surrounded by Rimbun Dahan’s lush greenery, the artist naturally channeled more organic forms into his works, which largely spoke of the duel between man and machine. Humanoids and machine parts commanded his canvases, and the artist’s mechanised worlds paid homage to one of Haslin’s favourite Japanese animes, Ghost in the Shell.
Today, those nuances have lingered, and they are joined by some other arguments. Man versus machine continues to hold court as the commanding theme, however, Haslin has depicted this battle in a more dramatized way; the very act of humans transforming into mechanised beings have been depicted with more exaggeration, emphasis, and clarity. Take Dorsiventrality, for example. In this work, the artist has portrayed a human chest (the rib cage is unmistakable), with bones elegantly morphing into cogwheels, bolts, and all.
Haslin’s tactic for altering these human forms have been shadowing and coloring techniques that have been honed over the years. Indeed, Haslin has been paying more attention to these elements as far as the human anatomy goes. And whereas before humans were portrayed more loosely, the artist has endeavoured to portray the human anatomy with more discipline this time around. Consider Qalbu, where the very essence of the human form – bone, muscles, and organs – are exhibited in full glory; the work is more scientific than fantastical, to put it more succinctly.
Other differences abound, too. Unlike his Rimbun Dahan exhibition, which featured a plethora of mediums and materials, Haslin has limited his production to drawings, watercolours, and paintings for this solo. Jute, a material he experimented with before, has been allowed to play a staring role in his paintings, offering the perfect backdrop on which to work. Of natural origin, jute’s thickness and texture affords for different characteristics; the artist explains that his many layers of paint find an ideal home with this material.
We’ll analyze the work Transfiguration, for argument’s sake. A large piece that features a tree that’s come to life, its limbs manifest across the canvas and colours pop in hallucinogenic hues. Jute paved the way for this to happen. According to Haslin, its natural properties allow the paint to shine forth and create depth for his chosen subject matter. The dramatics of his transfigurations, in short, is perfectly directed by the artist’s choice of jute over canvas, the ofttimes more reliable suspect.
If it isn’t already apparent, Haslin has markedly progressed from being a mere fantasy artist. Whilst his subject matter has roots in worlds created by individuals such as Hayao Miyazaki or H.R. Giger, his works are no longer confined to the comic book genre. Instead, the artist has attempted to inject more philosophical questions into his art. Man versus machine functions as an umbrella theme, but the themes that branch out from his main topic are manifold, and like his paint, they are multi-layered. Love and family is one of them, and so are death and transcendence, and existentialism. What the artist s
eeks for audiences to investigate through his art is what it ultimately means to be human in this day and age.
Man and nature are intertwined, argues the artist, but how far does man abandon nature in favour of the machine? Just how much destruction have we caused in favour of the conveniences that machines allow, and to what end are we all willing to discard our very humanness for progress? A lot, explain Haslin’s paintings. In Human, we see these symptoms very clearly – we’re human, but in overemphasizing the machine, are we not all losing our individuality and becoming mere uniformed skeletons?
It’s been said before, but it bears repeating that Haslin’s work of late has a ‘softer’ touch than his works from as recent as a half-a-decade ago. Artist friends had spotted this first, and when questioned, Haslin confirmed their hypothesis. This change, the abandonment of macabre and horror, came along at about the same time as his first-born, a daughter. Today, the artist’s subject matter and application matches his personal life; his subject matter is less grotesque, the images aren’t as surreal, and the softer edges of his lines speak of his newfound role as a father. And adding to this are other notable changes, such as flatter surfaces and two-dimensionality – his paint application, like his life, is now more serene.
DEATH 82x183cm Acrylic on Canvas 2013 Haslin Ismail
So it is, as mentioned at the start of this essay, that Haslin has evolved. His works of today carry a different dimension that has evolved from humble beginnings in the land of fantasy and youth. Haslin, boy wonder, has grown up. He has transfigured, so to speak, like the very characters that you see in his art today.
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