Playground by Alya Hatta @ ZHAN Art Space

If I’m not mistaken, in Alya Hatta’s solo exhibition Playground (closed last weekend; I caught it on the last day), there are three paintings entitled “Me”; one of them had something Jenny Saville-esque about it which made me wonder if she and Tracey Emin are the only women artists that young women in art school get introduced to. For someone in her early 20s (I think she’s 20), it’s slightly strange that she seems so pre-occupied with documenting her life and her body, but that’s not really her fault — this is the playground most young women grow up in. I didn’t like the “Me” works so much, but the exhibition generally was an enjoyable romp through the life & times of a promising young artist. Good for a Sunday and with friends, especially if you’re in your early 20s too. 

L to R: Shop Joy; We Broke Up; Sushi Queen

Self-revelation and confession can stray into self-indulgence, an accusation that the artist pre-empts by painting in the style of a child, with furious jagged lines and exaggerated expressions on her characters. The subject of the paintings range from her love for Sushi King, to an ex-boyfriend (titled “We broke up”; captioned “The title says it all!”), to a bright painting inspired by a phrase her relatives used to scold her with — “jangan duduk katak” — to a childhood experience of feeling ugly when she looked at herself in a mirror. What could be sensitive portrayals of childhood’s intensity of feelings sort of end up looking a bit delirious on canvas, maybe because the artist herself is not yet so distant from the age that she was in these paintings. Of these (the paintings that are not titled “Me” but are about Me nevertheless), the one I enjoyed most is probably the one dedicated to Sushi King, which depicts a central figure with multiple limbs contorted in a spiral… And a pair of conjoined limbs next to her, a silver anklet bedazzled on the foot. Sushi flies off on a haphazard conveyor belt. The Shard (?) is in the background, being exploded (?). What I will say is that she has a knack for painting faces. 

The better works of the show are the still lives: the painting of a convenience store with a carcass on the counter which opens the exhibition (a good choice), another smaller one of a chicken hanging in some outdoor butchers’ stall. Then there’s a painting supposedly inspired by the Tugu Negara, but transformed into a fleshy red bundle of legs instead, piled high on a cold concrete slab, but with the impression that they’re still kicking  — this is probably the most interesting painting in the show. 

The titular work, Playground, is an installation of a dining room scene. On a plinth is a tiny cabinet stocked with every day items and some snacks that seem more appropriate for a fridge rather than a cabinet, but it doesn’t matter, because they’ve all been preserved forever with resin. The yellow of the substance lends the items that old fossilised glow. On the floor is a low dinner table with the detritus of a meal — the most touching detail for me is the crystal glass candy jar sitting anachronistically next to a plain plate of fish. That crystal jar, with its pretensions to luxury, is one that I’ve seen in many households. On the floor, a doily mat with an edge missing, and on top of it a pair of baby shoes “never worn” — the price tag still on them. Up by the wall, a mosquito swatter covered in doily with a red target painted in the centre. This tiny kitchen, the domestic “playground” of her childhood, closes the show with a slightly more subdued and tender touch compared to the paintings of her in the playing grounds of early adulthood.