Kosala Gunasinghe or Kos Cos as he is known in art circles was wrapping up his latest exhibition in PubArt Gallery, in Hong Kong’s trendy CBD, Central, when we met. His third annual exhibition at the gallery, his latest body of work, Transfigurations, was on display for three weeks ending July 24. If a portrait [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Away from narratives, open to interpretation


Kosala Gunasinghe or Kos Cos as he is known in art circles was wrapping up his latest exhibition in PubArt Gallery, in Hong Kong’s trendy CBD, Central, when we met. His third annual exhibition at the gallery, his latest body of work, Transfigurations, was on display for three weeks ending July 24.

If a portrait could paint a thousand words, then Transfigurations did that, speaking volumes about its subjects; large works executed in rapid strokes, loud colour, leaving a trail of gestures like bold brushwork and dripping paint across canvas to amplify emotion over physical appearance. They fit into the genre of postmodern expressionism, a broad group that emerged in the ‘80s depicting their subects in a raw manner, using highly textural and expressive brushwork and intense colours.

But for Kos Cos, the genus is coincidental. He is also reluctant to comment on the content: “I don’t like to talk about narratives. For one, singers or film directors don’t always explain their work. So why should we (painters)? On the other hand, I like to hear different interpretations of my work from different people. Like, for example, someone may say ‘she looks happy’ or ‘she looks sad’. My own interpretations will curb the imagination of the viewer: If I say ‘this is a sad woman looking at the sea’, then people will see it that way. I don’t want to do that. Art has to be more free. In the exhibition, I put together pieces I really like and like to see how they, the audience, interpret them.”

Earlier this year, Kos Cos exhibited in London, at Artrooms, a novelty exhibition concept in which artists and their work take residence in hotel rooms or booths to show, discuss and sell their works to curious hotel guests and other visitors. He also showed in PubArt in 2013 and 2014.

Born in Sri Lanka, Kos grew up surrounded by creatives. His father ran an outdoor advertising agency, and so his childhood was spent in the company of artists. He studied and practised brush skills from an early age, and, for two years, understudied cartoonist S.C. Opatha. Although he did not receive a formal education in art, it was all around him. He was employed as a visualiser at Bates, Sri Lanka, for three years before moving to Hong Kong in 1999, where he has worked as a creative in advertising ever since. Constrained by the demands of the commercial art world, he took up painting in Hong Kong to express his creative talent. Initially, he created two bodies of work, including one in which he depicted Mao as Elvis, Steve Jobs, the Pope, and Hitler. However, he could not interest Hong Kong’s highly commercial galleries to put them on display. In 2013, he had a breakthrough with a new body of conceptual work called The Devil Inside, which caught the interest of PubArt, a studio that supports Hong Kong’s emerging talent. The Devil Inside focussed on fallen angels; featuring expressionist portraits of celebrities such as Angela Merkel, Roman Polanski, Rupert Murdoch and Li Ka Shing, who had “fallen victim to their inner demons, and had their reputations transformed”.

We chatted about his debut exhbition: “Although you say you have no interest in narrating anything through your paintings, the title itself has a strong narrative?”
“Looking back, I am not satisfied with that body of work.”
“What exactly are you not satisfied with?”

“Maybe the technique… when I look back, I feel they aren’t that good. Even the subject is not interesting. Later, I did some research and found that many had done work on this theme. It has a social and political message, which I don’t like. I don’t want to be political or social now. I want my art to connect and give viewers a positive message, rather than a political or social one.”

“Some of your subjects aren’t really devils, in my opinion.”
“But you delve into their lives, go a little deeper, you find something different. … I think we are all like that,” he answers with a laugh.
“The first time you paint something you are excited, and you put it up. But looking back, it’s not too deep, conceptually. In terms of execution – that is more conceptual. You can link The Devil Within to Transfigurations with the colour palette. But stylewise, my work has completely changed (over the years). The technique used then is nothing special. With Transfigurations, I have found my style and am establishing it.”

Portraiture fascinates him, and British contemporary portraiturist Jonathon Yeo is a favourite, along with US artist and illustrator Norman Rockwell.

We talk about Transfigurations: “Gestural strokes can be strong, and expressive, showing tautness and even turmoil,” I say, referring to works that to me dripped pain across the subject creating an unsettling tension.
“I paint fast, I like to work fast, and in the process I create some textures that I like to retain,” he says. “If you look at The Devil Inside, in terms of technique, it’s not me. I was not expressive then, but with this series, I am relaxed.”
The process of creating Transfigurations has been transformative. The first paintings are more realistic than the later ones that clearly show more abstraction.

Living in Sai Kung, in Hong Kong’s New Territories, helps, he says. The area is salubrious, compared to the rest of this densely populated, space-constrained city. Taking up residence in a largish village house allows him to make large works. Sri Lanka influences his colour palette while his profession in advertising provides a stimulating creative milleu. “My profession doesn’t really influence my art, but I do hang out with lots of creative people and discuss art, music and so on,” he says.

His second exhibition, in 2014, also at PubArt, took on a Sri Lankan theme. “In early 2014, I visited Sri Lanka. I was at Galle Fort, admiring the history and watching an elephant. I was inspired and I was preparing for the next work. I decided to theme it on the elephant.”

The collection captures the many moods of the elephant in charcoal and muted acrylics. “My father was a charcoal artist. Charcoal is an organic medium – it goes with the animals. Sharp colours don’t go with charcoals, and so I muted down the colours. I wanted to give a soft feel to the elephants. The title, Serene Majesty, is because the elephant is huge, but humble. I wanted to capture that feeling, and so the choice of colours.” He did a collection of 12 works – the works were displayed at PubArt last year, and later at the London Artroom exhibition.

“Artrooms was a learning experience – it taught me what people look for in art. Most people want to see a uniqueness. There are tons of people on the planet who can draw really well, but what people want is something unique – a unique style.”
Transfigurations shows Kos Cos maturing and establishing a signature style: postmodern expressionist portraiture. “I love doing portraits. I always wanted to do portraits,” he says. Traces of the portraiture of The Devil Inside are faintly visible in the new works, but now Kos has opened out with confidence. Portraits may sound simple and straightforward, but under his brush they come to life, escaping from the confines of form through bold strokes of colour, contoured and layered one on top of the other, opening up a new dimension that will tell each viewer an individual story.

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