Introduction text by Constance Sheares.
Exhibition Catalogue: Recent Paintings 1998. 88 pages
Despite his urban roots, Prabhakara Jimmy Quek has always been fascinated by the countryside. His earliest paintings are bird's-eye views of agricultural land, which have the functional look of modern design. Here and there the pattern of fields is broken by lines of canals, roads or a meandering river. Tranquillity, 1987 (Collection: Shell Companies in Singapore), is an example of such panoramic vistas of patchwork fields and high horizons-clean and straight-forward, lucid and informative.
Prabhakara's early enthusiasm for art was encouraged by Tan Seng Yong, his art teacher at Dunman Government Chinese Middle School, who taught him Chinese painting, calligraphy, watercolours and oil painting, and took him to exhibitions. A minor impediment caused by a childhood bout with polio was also a factor in fostering his interest in the relatively sedentary occupation of painting. On leaving school in 1973, he enrolled in the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts where he received lessons from Si Xiangtuo, Chen Chong Swee and Lim Yew Kuan, among others. He left after only a year, persuaded by his father to take a course in business studies at the Ngee Ann Technical College, where he was enrolled from
1974 to 1977. He then worked for six years as an administrative officer, then accounts executive, and finally manager in a design company where his artistic flair proved in graphic and three-dimensional design projects.
In 1985 Prabhakara gave up all business involvement in order to concentrate on painting, starting with a
refresher course at St Patrick's School of Art (now known as La Salle College of the Arts). "Steffan Neumann, a Belgian artist lecturing there, taught me the colour theory which I then began applying in my painting. But I left after two year, as I soon picked up what I wanted to learn and had my own ideas about art, I had my first solo exhibition in 1987.
Eager to be involved in the most avant-garde in art, Prabhakara developed an image of
landscape in which nature is portrayed in all its pristine wildness, very different from his lucid and informative aerial views of nature, tamed and ordered by the human hand. Implicit in these painting is the notion of the sublime in nature, where the natural world is portrayed as picturesque and beautiful on the one hand, and terrifying and powerful on the other.
Prabhakara's focus on nature's abstract elements, never-stable and ever-changing, led him to an art in which the recognizable object ultimately disappears. He achieved this by combining the techniques he had learned with his enthusiasm for American Expressionism, taking risks with his material to create a powerful physical sense of the outdoors and of the atmosphere and coastline, the winds and rainstorms. The best known from this series are Beginning to Rejoice and Celebrating with Nature, 1992 (Collection: Raffles City Pte Ltd,
displayed in the foyer of the Westin Stamford), monumental vistas painted with a sweeping brush and dramatic colors to convey the artist's profound feeling for the mysteries of nature and immensity of the universe.
"Nature, especially natural phenomena such as the infinitely changing aspects of water and light in waves, clouds, the sky - these are the subjects I like to paint..... When painting, I find my feelings and perceptions fit in well with the strong Buddhist beliefs I have had since young. Constant change, impermanence and non-self, the overall scheme of thing where everything has its place and yet relates and interacts with all other things. These are what I try to depict in my paintings", Prabhakara stated in 1990. By then he had become a devout Buddhist, spending part of each year meditating in a forest retreat. After his exhibition in 1987, he had visited India, Nepal and Kashmir in order to make a pilgrimage to the four sacred Buddhist sites - the places of his birth, enlightenment, first discourse and death. Besides panoramic landscapes of even greater breadth and grandeur, this had resulted in a series of abstract paintings composed of irregular rectangles, like paving stones, in colours borrowed from ancient Indian temples and traditional textiles.
On his return from India, Prabhakara spent ten days at Santisukharama, a Buddhist Meditation Center in Kota Tinggi,
Malaysia, practising the art of meditation under the guidance of the Venerable Sujiva. The Buddhist idea of enlightenment and preoccupied him since the early 1980s. Reading extensively the publications on Buddhism by such scholars and teachers as Jack Kornfield, Sayadaw U Pandita and the Venerable U Silananda, he found himself thinking of imagery as a metaphor like language, able to explain a concept. In 1988 he began a series of paintings dealing not so much with moving figures as with movement itself, such as Impression, 1988 (Collection: Singapore Art
Museum). This tendency culminates in Dance of Change, 1992, in which concrete subject matter is absent. Resembling diaphanous veils of smoke wafting in the wind, gentle ripples of water or the blurred images of moving figures caught in photographs, these paintings with their flowing patterns and tonal colors are the artist's visual interpretations of the Buddhist law of impermanence and changeability.
"You see impermanence in everything. And with this understanding, I feel I can do better paintings...... sometimes I might be satisfied with something I have done. Later, when I
look at it again, I might feel like changing certain things. I dare to do it because everything is subject to change. There's always a lot of unlimited creative energy", Prabhakara stated, explaining his desire to paint pictures that could express the liberation that results from the loss of ego, the ridding of an exclusive identity or self, to be replaced by the sense of interrelation and interdependence. Through these paintings he hopes to gain an insight into the meaning of his own existence and to demonstrate his acceptance of things they are. For he realizes that the striving for enlightenment is in itself a paradox because it is this desire and this striving that he should be rid of.
His idea of these "insights" is embodied in the Trees series, inspired by the rubber plantations surrounding the Buddhist retreat in Kota Tinggi.
The idea of painting trees came to him in 1987 but was not executed until 1991. Early works, such as Quiet Plantation, 1991, are relatively realistically conceived, but by the following year he had progressed to a more abstract approach, as in Mystic Memory, 1992, in which calligraphy makes its first appearance, albeit in pretend form. His intention was to paint the essence of the trees, their sound and feel rather than their physical reality. The artist, alone in the forest, becomes aware only of nature's beauty
and its unpredictability, hearing the sounds and feeling the emotions, which cannot be heard or felt in the city. These paintings pay homage to Cezanne and Picasso but are essentially about the fundamentals of people's relationship with nature, about a state of mind.
Abstraction is taken a step forward in May You Be Well and Happy I, 1996, by the addition of the Buddhist injunction "May you be well and happy",
in Chinese and English, over and over again on the painting. This has the effect of bringing the pattern of trees right on the picture surface, flattening them even further. In Going for Retreat II, 1997, similar inscriptions, combined with graffiti-like drawings of Buddha images and other symbols, are scrawled over almost the entire painting. Explaining his intentions, Prabhakara states, " I practice Vipassana whereby one becomes acutely aware of one's body movements, feelings and thoughts. When one listens, one is also aware of listening. This applies to everything one does. It is a process of
knowing the cause and effect of all phenomena. That is how wisdom and understanding is achieved. Concentration gives one peace and a calm mind. Steadfast mindfulness leads to the purification of the mind, enabling one to overcome worries and pain. This is Buddha's teaching, and painting is my way of sharing this experience."
In the early 1990s, paintings containing obvious landscape references gradually gave way to those with more symbolic imagery, such as the Games series. Like the Trees series, this is meant as a metaphor for the process of losing one's ego, when the mind becomes void of all thoughts, all desires. Begun in 1994 and based on horizontal and vertical lines, the symbols of tabulated good order, these pictures of chessboards, and other game boards are given personal
meaning and an atmosphere or some kind of mood. "Games, like Chinese chess, snake and ladders and tic-tac-toe, are linked with childhood memories... Life is like a game. Whether you go up or down, win or lose, is all due to many circumstances. What is important is to "play" with mindfulness, to look beyond the winning and the losing, to enjoy each step. Suddenly the game is over and you begin all over again."
In Chessboard: Missing Square, 1994, Prabhakara pares down the elements of his picture making to squares in atmospheric blues and grays. He has a special way of coming simplicity of style and subject matter with
subtlety of perception to convey a sense of unchanging time, inevitability or eternity. Whereas Snakes and Ladders, 1994, is an almost literal visual translation of that well-known game board, Game of Satipatthana, begun in 1994 and completed in 1997, adopts a more abstractionist approach to content of an obscure and personal nature. Signs and symbols intermingle with the snakes and ladders, altering their meaning, function and symbolic value. The Wisdom series runs concurrently with the Games series to which it is closely related, compositionally and conceptually.
Sheng Sheng Sheng Si Sheng, 1994, was inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh's poem which is a repetition of only two Chinese characters, Sheng (meaning "life" or
"to be born") and Si (meaning "death" or "to die"), arranged in such a way as to mean, "During many lifetimes, birth and death are present, / giving rise to birth and death./ The moment the notion of birth and death arises, / birth and death are there./ As soon as the notion of birth and death dies, / real life is born." The painting is divided into two equal halves y means of a line of the ancient lock or key motif used by the artist to symbolize the inseparable link between life and death. The poem in its original Chinese, as well as its English translation, is inscribed all over the textured surface of the painting, like graffiti on an old, stained wall.
Wisdom: There is no fire..., 1996, consists simply of coloured squares, so thickly layered with paint that the inscriptions are literally engraved in it. Concentration on the
text of these inscriptions forms part of the meditation process. The artist is trying to convey that sense of purity, of nothingness, reached in meditation when all consciousness dissolves with the realization of the transience of all life and all matter. In Wisdom: We are What..., 1996, the squares are replaced by bands of lettering in similar pastel hues.
Prabhakara explained the difference between these symbolistic works and the earlier expressionistic ones, "In the past my desires made me do many things in a restless state of mind, but now I know my thoughts. This helps in my painting. Now I paint only when I feel the conditions are right I allow my ideas and inspiration to mature before I begin. I see myself more clearly and am able to develop a state of mindfulness and joy.
From time to time, Prabhakara breaks away from imagery drawn from Buddhist iconography and from the imagination in order to paint directly observed scenes of everyday life. These are usually small outdoor genre or interior scenes in
the manner of Bonnard, such as Merry Go Round, 1995, and Pannajiva's Stroller, 1996. They have the appearance of spontaneity and some may have been executed en plein air, but are in fact carefully composed, using detailed preparatory drawings, a few dating to 1985-86.
Prabhakara's search for truth in nature focused on what could be considered the
most beautiful creation of nature - flowers. Love of flowers and the spiritual value attached to them is deeply rooted in every religion and all people. They are synonymous with feelings of love and joy, sentiments of nostalgia and dreams. The recent Bougainvillaea series comprises some of the brightest pictures that Prabhakara has ever done, packed with pigment, and laden with the earnestness of his observation - direct and objective. Rejoicing, 1997, is a poetic image of joy, offering the prospect of a totally agreeable, happy experience. It reflects the artist's mood of buoyancy and confidence at the time. The ego is engulfed by the splendour of the natural world, here symbolized by the brilliant red and pink blooms. Like Monet's late Waterlilies, its
simple composition and close-up view-point is a parallel to a situation where the ego has dissolved and all is one and one is all. The artist is trying to tell us that enlightenment just comes, quite unexpectedly - It just happens.
Prabhakara's most recent works are a series of metaphysical paintings prompted by his reading from the poems and commentaries of Buddhist scholars and spiritual leaders. Body and Mind, 1997, depicts the four material elements and the five aggregates or
"mind" and "body" which make up the essence of meditation. The four elements - earth, water, fire and air - are represented by the four snakes, whiles the five aggregates - matter, feeling, perception, mental activity and consciousness - are represented by five mask-like figures, ranged one behind the other. The sixth figure, looming threateningly in black and bearing two swords, symbolizes desire, the insidious robber of equanimity and the stumbling block in the path to Nirvana.
The artist's search for greater spiritual contact with landscape drew him to the landmarks of Buddhist India. The mysteries shrouding the ancient sites are like keys to a lost language that can reveal mystical truths. Night conversation, 1997, was inspired by the Venerable Sujiva's explanation of Sutta 19 of the Buddha's Discourses which elaborates on Buddha's conversation with Brahma when he was residing on
Vultures' Peak in Rajagaha. In this dark painting the single light shining from the mountain peak represents the light of the Buddha illuminating the path to enlightenment.
Victory, 1997 was inspired by the Jataka story of the Buddha subduing the rampant elephant, Nalagiri. The preparatory sketches were derived from a drawing by Nguyen Thi Hop, reproduced in a book recounting this story, but the final painting is quite different from this drawing. The figures of the Buddha and the elephant are fragmented and then merged into an abstract composition executed in bold and expressive
strokes of black, deep blues and grays. Somehow, the painting manages to convey an impression of a whole sequence of actions - the elephant charging up in rage, the Buddha raising his hand to stroke its head, and the elephant kneeling in submission. There is here a strength and monumentality missing in the earlier paintings on the theme of movement and change to which it is evidently related.
Thich Nhat Hanh's poem about his brother's return home after a long journey
formed the basis of Smiles and Tears, 1997, a mystical picture full of Buddhist symbols, such as the lotus and the flaming mountain. It has obvious links with his earlier paintings about change and impermanence but is intended to capture and evoke a mood of contemplation.
In Union, 1997, there is a reductive tendency, a simplification, for the sake of visual and emotional impact. There is no consistency in the
perspective but a homogenous blue tonality unifies the transparent, barely defined foreground figure with the illusionistically painted landscape. This indistinct figure functions as a self-portrait, set in a mental landscape in which the physical and the spiritual co-exist. The artist is portraying himself in the psychological and physical condition of a yogi in his quest for freedom from material desires, for a spiritual life, peace and hope.
Begin Again Today, 1997, was inspired by a dream vision of the four Buddhist spiritual leaders who had most influenced the artist - Sayadaw U Pandita and his disciple the Venerable the figures to mere silhouettes, enveloping them in a haze of incense smoke through which an ethereal,
golden light shines., He rubs out, paints over and glazes till the canvas acquires the incandescence of a Redon. There is in this painting an overwhelming sense of the spiritual achieved by a unique combination of fact and fantasy.
In another version, entitled Witnessing the Great Phenomenon, 1997, Prabhakara depicts the four monks experiencing a vision of Nirvana. The figures stand waist deep in a field of flowers stretching into the horizon, silhouette against a sky of multicolored stars. The pointillist technique is used here to convey the impression of an explosion of fireworks and blossoms. The figures are painted in shorthand with minimal identifying features, yet must function as portraits. This is a memorial picture in which the sense of wondrous happening is achieved by exaggerating the floral pattern and the surreal colours. For the artist, flowers are permanently associated with joy.
Prabhakara's study of the Buddhist texts has given him the courage to change his style to using heavier brushwork without the fierce spontaneity associated with his expressionistic landscapes. It has also supplied him with a great stock of symbolic images and a feeling for the subconscious in which the past and the present are united. For him, the dream, that ambiguous state between imagination and reality, has now become the source of "true" experience and therefore true creativity. He now brushes in suggestions of images and gradually builds up his pictures with layers of paint to achieve the ethereal luminosity of a dream vision. He works on many canvases at once, but feels free to leave any unfinished, to be completed, at a later time. There is now no tendency to force any through to a final conclusion, the image of each being allowed to crystallize out of a matrix of various possibility. For this forty-two-year-old artist, after a sustained practice of fifteen years, painting has become introspective and autobiographical, a sort of writing on canvas in which can be read the state of his mind and which expresses his inner character, his sense of continual change, of hope and joy.