Famed for his vibrant and prismatic works, he is recognised as a pioneer of modern art in Malaysia, having participated in the seminal exhibition GRUP (Kuala Lumpur, 1967) alongside Anthony Lau, Cheong Laitong, Ibrahim Hussein, Latiff Mohidin, Syed Ahmad Jamal, and Yeoh Jin Leng.
A Straits Baba by heritage, Koh spent most of his formative years in Malacca and started painting at an early age. He had his first solo exhibition at 16 years old at the British Council in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Koh was born in Singapore but moved to then Malaya when he was an infant during the Japanese invasion. “My first ancestor to come to Malaya was Koh Chin. He arrived in Malacca 300 years ago and his great grandson Koh Eng Hoon left Malacca to work in Singapore. Eng Hoon Street in [Tiong Bahru] Singapore was named after him and Koh Eng Hoon was my great-great grandfather.” (Jolly Koh, KL Lifestyle, 2020)
Koh wrote and published a book titled, Artistic Imperatives: Selected writings and paintings in 2004 and had his earlier research papers published in journals including Philosophy of Education in 1975 and 1976 and The British Journal of Aesthetics in 1980. “We are artists, and our special talent and expertise is to create beauty. So, all young artists, forget about being a pseudo-philiosopher, a pseudo-moraliser, or a pseudo-political activist. Instead, go forth and paint beautiful and exciting pictures.” (Jolly Koh, Artistic Imperatives: Selected Writings and Paintings, Maya Press, Malaysia, 2004, p. 46)
76 x 159 cm
Oil and Acrylic on Canvas
In 1959 Koh left for London and graduated from Hornsey College of Art and London University. While in London he was introduced to modernism, his distinct use of colour and form exemplified by works such as Fan Fern (circa 1969) currently on display at the National Gallery Singapore. He returned to Malaysia in 1963 and was involved in establishing the Fine Art department of the MARA School of Art & Design. He left Malaysia to pursue a Masters in Art Education at Indiana University, USA on a Fulbright scholarship and completed a Doctorate in Philosophy of Education before returning to Malaysia. He left for Australia in 1976 and took on a lecturing position in Adelaide for the next decade. While in Australia he exhibited regularly and worked extensively with celebrated Australian artist John Olsen. As a practising artist and art educator, he contributed to the development of many young artists across the region.
He has exhibited internationally at the X Biennial (Sao Paulo, 1969), ASEAN Mobile Exhibition (Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Jakarta, Manila, Bangkok, 1974), Malaysian Art 65-78, Commonwealth Institute (London, 1978), and the Fifth Indian Triennale (New Dehli, 1981). An art theorist with a special interest in the theory of ‘colour’, Koh is also an active art educator but foremost a painter.
There is no set time, place or narrative in Jolly Koh’s works. What emerges on canvas, as the artist explains, is one of chance. Koh divulges, “The whole process from start to finish is an accident…And that’s my view on life. Life to me is a series of chance and accidents. If the accidents happen in our interest, we say we’re lucky. And the chance that works against our interest is bad luck. But it’s all chance and luck.” In a matter of good fortune for Koh, he has been gifted with a painterly intuition that was later honed from his years of experience as both a student and educator. This propitious combination of intrinsic sensitivity and experience are evident throughout Koh’s illustrious career, who produced and continues to produce fantastical forms in his array of kaleidoscopic colours. Chance, for Koh, works in a series of fortunate events. With Lady Luck at the helm, Koh adapts to the natural rhythm and interaction of simply pouring paint on canvas, letting its motion guide his hand to create an inimitable visual experience. This adaptive quality that he possesses is what Koh would term ‘artistic sensibility’. It is the unpredictability of his style, and his ability to work with its capricious quality that makes every Jolly Koh work different from the other. The process might be a gamble, but it is one that has bested the odds at every turn.
Swirl is one such painting that encapsulates Koh’s dexterity in minute detail. With every colour spilling across the canvas in ripples and eddies, they are bound together in beatific harmony. The complementary tones of each colour and their placement attests to Koh’s keen understanding of colour theory, a subject that he has written an essay, A New Study of Colour for Artists and other Visual Designers. Even if his works begin as a game of chance, the method of which Koh proceeds to transform every chance into an opportunity to challenge and prove his artistic capabilities.
Led by chance and guided by intuition, Koh’s works have a universal and timeless quality to them. Drawing from a broad range of influences, Koh looks to both contemporary and ancient art forms in his art. In Red Mountains and Tears of the Moon, the elongated, dripping quality of the paint takes inspiration from Jun glaze ceramics of the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The result is a modern adaptation of ancient ceramic techniques, rendered in a lustrous, polychromatic combination of oil and acrylic paint. As a collector of various objects that range from stones, driftwoods to inkpots, there is a clear sense of his appreciation of artistry across various mediums. Moving to the present, Koh also finds inspiration from other giants in art, such as Helen Frankenthaler and Zhang Daqian for his splash-ink technique. With influences from the ancient and modern, Koh’s oeuvre is a testament to the artist’s personal love for various aesthetics, made manifest in his inventive style that crosses borders of time, space and culture.
But beyond a deep appreciation for the visual, Koh also has a strong affinity for music, particularly classical composers such as Wagner, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev. While he paints, he puts music on to set the mood and the emotional tone of the overall piece, which reveals itself in the colours that Koh picks. In a previous interview, he has stated that his objective of using colour is to evoke or objectify feelings. Be it dramatic melancholia, or the lighter sounds of a budding romance, Koh’s works are a stunning example of the emotional resonance of music and painting.
Lilac Landscape is one example of Koh’s adroitness at using colour to create a dreamy and romantic setting. With pastel purple hues softened by cerulean and turquoise shades, the artist materialises a whimsical world steeped in romance. The ethereality of the scene captures the breaking of dawn, or the transience between sunset and night. Set with a gleaming white moon overhead, the liminal moment is a brilliant conveyance of the serene romance that permeates the landscape. Enlivened with a fantastic contrast of orange and yellow, Lilac Landscape testifies to Koh’s expertise with colour theory and his predilection for vibrant hues. Another work in this collection that embodies his signature vivid palette and dynamic brushwork is Heaven Scent. Wittily named for its resemblance to flowers, the painting lies on the border between figurative and abstract. The artist describes himself as a figurative painter, but what really defines his oeuvre is his inventiveness and bold response to colour. The result is an achingly beautiful visual phenomena for the viewer to immerse themselves in.
If there is a lesson to be learnt from Jolly Koh, it is his commitment to his art. Having painted since he was young, the artist has been on a journey of continuous growth and change. His devotion to his craft and receptiveness to new mediums only serves to take his work to new, unprecedented heights. Koh’s rich and extensive oeuvre reveals an artist in command of his craft, in technical ingenuity, refined sensibility and at the heart of it all, raw talent.
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