We catch up with Anthony Chua and Hong Sok Chern on what it means to breathe new ink on canvas at their latest exhibition, New Ink at Oviato Art.
UOB Painting of the Year 2014 winner Om Mee Ai tells Gallery & Studio how colours are intrinsically linked to experiences and details how her Geometrically-Abstract paintings prioritise viewer experience.
It’s easy to mistake Korean abstract painter Om Mee Ai for a fellow gallery visitor. Trendily dressed, she had been walking around walkways at the UOB Art Gallery with an easy demeanour and none of the nervousness one would expect prior to giving an exhibition presentation. It was not until I randomly commented on how fascinating the geometrical shapes looked and how fascinating the colours the paintings were before I realised that I had been standing next to Om for the last five minutes.
“Each painting can take between two to three months, depending on the sizes,” she replies. “But I usually work on two to three pieces at a time because the paint takes time to dry.” Noticing my intent gazing at the painting, N-PIN56L, that took the 2014 UOB Painting of the Year prize, Om begins telling me a little more about her Geometric-Abstract paintings, a style she developed back when she had been studying in LaSalle from 1999 to 2002. “I usually use a grid as my ‘form’ (for her paintings). Within geometric-abstraction, I try to do layering, sometimes using up to 20 layers, which helps build the colour. Each layer is very translucent, which allows them (the colours) to gradually build up. My paintings might look like a solid colour, but up close, you’d be able to tell that they’re made up of different colours, eventually becoming something totally different.”
As for how different they can be, she quips that it’s surprising how no two paintings will turn out the same, even though she might be working on two at the same time. It’s an organic development that occurs emotionally. “I don’t follow a specific theme. I work continuously and would just start. Most of my paintings have a very dark base that forms a starting point. This is the ‘routine’, and halfway through, I’d make my decision to develop certain features. The colours come from Nature, mostly. It could be the weather, my surroundings. Even something as simple as a tree, for example, the leaves on various parts of the tree can be very different. I’d try to get different colours in the same way.”
When asked if she was a very organised and disciplined person, Om reveals that she’s isn’t. Instead, her meticulous approach to painting is her way of invoking order into her life. In the same way a brick-layer rests row upon row of bricks to form a wall, Om makes use of paint and tape to create her paintings in her home studio in Hong Kong (Om also divides her time between studios here in Singapore and in Milan), where she currently lives with her husband who is working there. “I use masking tape,” she says, “it’s a 6mm masking tape that is applied on the canvas, leaving me little squares to paint. And when that dries out, I’d remove the tape and paint again. This is a continuous process, and I’d build a painting this way.”
That the process is painstaking, one has little doubt after looking at the sheer amount of detail that goes into each piece, but to Om, the process is regarded as a very private struggle, comparable to the privacy a person in the toilet would require. On her thoughts about the struggle, Om replies matter-of-factly, “That’s when it gets satisfying. It takes a bit of time, but you won’t get anything without effort. I often see my paint-making in the same way people go to work. You might be working on the same processes every day, but things won’t be the same each day.” A challenge she does face, though, is knowing when to stop. But given her experience, the artist would often take a time-out and place the near-finished piece in a separate room for a while. Viewed separately under different light conditions at different times of the day, Om tells me that she’d intuitively know when the painting is nearing completion.
Ultimately, it really is all about creating work that connects to people, and Om makes use of colours to communicate her narratives. “I think colours are very individual. When an audience looks at my painting, the colours reach out to different people differently. A shade of blue could be different to different people. I have a theory that preferences in colours comes from one’s childhood, one’s experience. Therefore, In my work, I try to create a delicate blend of colours.”
And to ensure that her audiences have enough space to appreciate her paintings, she’s particular about the manner in which her 14 paintings in her recent solo exhibition ‘Colour of Mind’ was displayed at the UOB Gallery. “Audiences must first have a curiosity. The distance in which they view the work is very important. When viewers look at my paintings from afar, it might look monochromatic. But when they come closer, they’d notice more colours and details, and would want to come closer. They’d also notice more structure. These are the stages in viewing the work. After that, they’d develop their own feelings about it. In abstract paintings, sometimes when people don’t understand it first time, they’d look at the title to get an idea. I try to eliminate that and let audiences form their own opinions without any fixed idea by using codes for titles.”
When asked the secret to her coded title, Om breaks out into a smile, saying that it’s a secret she doesn’t usually tell. However she obliges my curiosity and reveals that sometimes, the letters refer to a shape, or an emotion she first had when she takes in the shade of colour in the completed work. The numbers though, could refer to the dimensions of the painting. “There is no right or wrong way to see a painting,” adds Om, “But we (as artists) should provide as much information as we can to help them see for themselves.”
Om might be enjoying a higher profile now that she’s won a grand prize, but in between shuttling between cities like Singapore, and Hong Kong to conduct art workshops for emerging artists. In the afternoon of the launch of her solo at the UOB Gallery, Om had been busy conducting an abstract art workshop for some children from the Thye Hwa Kuan Family Service Centre @ Tanjong Pagar. “It’s a very unique experience,” she enthuses, “because while I had been a category winner before, I have never won such a big prize. It was such a huge event and many people had congratulated me. But after a while, I am back at work.”
This article first appeared in Vol 6 of Gallery & Studio magazine.
Photos: Chee Boon Pin
Art has always been a means for expression, a creative outlet in which the artists makes a point or take a stand. For urban artist Mohammed Zulkarnaen Othman, better known by his artist moniker ZERO, his foray into street art stemmed from a desire to make art accessible. “It’s a basic idea,” he says, “we were young people who enjoyed drawing and painting. We didn’t even consider ourselves ‘artists’. We just wanted to share our art, to put it on the street for people to appreciate it.”
But while he might have always known that art was a calling, he never actually expected to be showing work in museums or galleries because “no one really cares about these kinds of things,” he explains. Describing his experiences in the scene back when he started out in his early 20s, “a lot of the work was ‘non-commissioned’ and done along Arab Street and on Haji Lane, way before what it is now. It was a ‘dead’ place with shops used for storage then. We’d go into abandon places and paint our stuff (murals like the one you see here). We never really thought that it was vandalism because we were still young. Like kids playing football under the void decks and skateboarding in the streets, there is no malice there. The intention isn’t to disrupt anything. It’s an outlet for us to express ourselves.”
The turning point, according to the soft-spoken 35-year old, came when a friend had been approached by the Singapore Arts Museum, “to come in and do stuff in the gallery,” he details. “It was the first and only time they had intervention art during an exhibition. That was also my first time having a critic session with a curator. That was eye opening for me: the idea of adding context and concept into art. I’ve always known that I wanted to say something with my art.”
Since then, the boyish-looking artist has grown from strength to strength. His work has been exhibited both here and abroad and he’s also worked with brands like Converse and adidas. Just last year, the urban artist was the recipient of the National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award, the first graffiti artist to receive it. While it might have been a proud moment for him, he remains committed to creating work that is engaging as it is eye-catching.
“I see myself as an artist for the community,” he explains. “Whatever work I make, I keep in mind the sentiments of who we are as Singaporeans; what we go through on a daily basis, and the emotions we are experiencing.” In between lecturing part-time at the LaSalle College of the Arts, ZERO works together with with his collective RSCLS, to promote the growth of urban arts and culture in Singapore.
How did your nickname ZERO come about?
I had been skateboarding since I was 15, and I always had an affinity for skate culture and the kind of music I listen to, like Nirvana and The Smashing Pumpkins during the Grunge period. Smashing Pumpkins also had an album titled Zero. One of my favourite skateboarders, Jamie Thomas, also skated with Zero skateboards, which he owned. That was my first love for the number zero and it stuck.
Can you tell us more about your artistic influencers?
I like reading comics and I was inspired by my uncle who drew a lot. He drew a lot and had scrolls of paper with portraits of movie stars like Stallone in the movie Cobra. Then, I started skateboarding as well. I like works with a dark sense of humour. Those were my main inspirations. A lot of the guys who did graffiti art had a background in skateboarding; it was like a natural progression. You could say that I’ve always been connected to the urban environment.
How would you describe your artistic practice?
I would describe it as free. I’m not bound by structure. As an artist, you should be free to do whatever I want to express myself. Sometimes a painting doesn’t work for me, it’s too two-dimensional when I’d like people to walk around it and see different aspects of it, so I’d do a three-dimensional piece. But street art has always been stereotyped lah, it can become a problem when I do something different. Now I can’t label myself a street artist because it’s not done in the subversive nature it should be.
What’s your creative process like?
As someone who does street art, you react to the surroundings, to what’s already there. I try to be as spontaneous as I can. When I’m painting my murals, I might have a sketch, but it’d be spontaneous along the way. If someone behind me was saying something, it gets channelled and becomes part of the art work. That’s why I don’t listen to music when I do anything. I’d rather listen to my surroundings and observe everything else. I don’t have my own personal space to ‘zone out’, that way I can gather information, and ‘react’ to situations. I’m a very reactive person as an artist, but zen as a person.
Do you have a signature feature in your work?
The characters and faces that you see recur in pretty much all my art works. The portraits look morbid, with a lot of lines on their faces.
Where do they come from?
From my mind, I guess. I think human beings are the most interesting subject matter. Every time I paint these characters, it becomes a part of me. I may be painting a face, with structure of eyes and noses. But sometimes, I’d put the mouth as the eyes, and the eyes where the mouth is. I’d make it morbid, not to the extent where it won’t be palatable. I use very bright colours, like pink and purples and luminous shades. It is distraction, to take you away from the darkness of the character and that’s the probably the first thing you’d notice.
But do you worry about your messages being too abstract for your audiences?
The more I feel that I should make work that is ‘dumbed down’, the more we will never be exposed and create a culture of understanding art, or even understanding yourself through art. If you keep creating beautiful things that say, for example, that racial harmony should look like this: colourful and all that, we will never have that point of understanding. I believe that Singaporeans are smart enough to appreciate that.
Is pushing boundaries the way to grow as an artist?
We need to put more sophisticated art work into spaces where people will really see these pieces. Give audiences a chance. So what if they don’t understand it? Eventually, if they see more, they will learn. This is the same way the Europeans got more sophisticated. The art was there, in their faces, and it became part of their lives. They grew into this culture of art and architecture and slowly developed this understanding.
What are some of the themes you explore in your work?
I’ve always been very interested in the aspects of living in an urban environment, consumerism, capitalism and all the –isms and –schisms. Politics as well.
Is there any resonance with your personal life?
When I had my first solo painting exhibition last year, I was going through a personal thing and painted, for the first time, something that was all me. That was a full series of art work that talked about me, my emotions and touched on my personal experiences. I had been going through divorce, and I have a child. It was a profound experience for me. That said, I still painted it brightly, and in a way, that experience was like exorcising my demons. People could actually relate to it, the story, and the emotions. I’ve always believe in creating works that people can relate to. I’m not unique, I’m just doing something different.
How do you hope your work engages with your audiences?
Understand it in your own way. I could put an art piece in the middle of a HDB void deck and have people ask me what I’m doing, and I’d reach out to them and tell them about my narrative. You may see it differently, but I’m not going to force it.
What’s been the most satisfying part of your work?
The fact that people appreciate it. I feel satisfied when I know that I’ve put in a hundred or more per cent into my work, even when I know that the walls with my murals, despite having spent sleepless nights painting them for 12, 13 hours straight, are being painted over. I don’t allow the fact that it’s temporary to compromise the effort and heart.
Tell us more about receiving the National Art’s Council’s Young Artist Award.
It was a very proud moment for me as I was representing graffiti and street art, the fringe of the fringe. You don’t see us in museums or galleries. It’s a way for me to inspire other artists, the younger generation and to show that I came from a background where I painted on the street and I’m able to be where I am. Historically, I’m already a part of art in Singapore, where if you talked about graffiti in Singapore, my name would be there, along with the other leading artists in their fields, the guys like Tang Da Wu and Lee Wen.
What’s your take on street art being misunderstood as vandalism?
What makes it vandalism is totally based on the laws in a country. If they were written differently, street art would be something else. Recognition can be a double-edged sword. After showing in a museum, we’re stuck in a position where we can’t go out and paint on the streets as much as we’d like because we have a persona, now we have a face.
Do you think street art is being commercialised?
The recognition is definitely there, and the amount of galleries showing works by street artists is definitely more. I won’t say it’s totally commercialised because anything in the world is always, at some point, capitalised on. Street art has evolved. You now see different artists coming up with new ways and methods of questioning themselves. Of course, it took the commercial art world to take a while to embrace this. But they did, and if you’d go to Art Basel in Miami, it’s everywhere.
This article first appeared in Vol 3 of Gallery & Studio.
Words: Rossara Jamil
Photos and Art Images: Albert Tan and Ode To Art
Multi-award winning Ong Kim Seng is a self-taught painter whose love of drawing sparked in childhood. The 69-year-old master watercolourist still spends each day painting and divides his time between travelling and teaching. An active member (and first Asian member) of the American Watercolour Society, Ong has also had his works auctioned by Sotheby’s and Christie’s. He talks to Gallery & Studio about facing obstacles in pursuing one’s passion.
How would you describe your work?
I always have a strong inclination for light and shade. Light and shade are the souls of a painting. It allows you to see details, by creating a combination of dark colours in the dark areas. In the light areas, it’s all the tonal values. A picture must also have a focal point. All the lighted area will lead to the focal point, so you’ll straightaway look at the focal point.
You held several jobs in the past, including welding and serving in the police force. But you kept on painting.
When I was working, I was already sketching and painting. If you were a policeman, most of the time, you’re doing police work. You don’t have enough time, and at the end of the day, you’re quite tired. When I began training as a supervisor at the National Semiconductor, I had off days that gave me enough time to paint. I had a better salary so I could also buy painting equipment. In those days I didn’t know paintings could sell. Until one day someone came along when I was painting outdoors and asked if I would sell the work. Of course I said yes and quoted $100 or $80.
How was your first sale with a gallery owner like?
You’d feel so happy when people want your work. The first time a gallery owner came to my house and asked to buy some of my works for his gallery, he bought about 10 pieces. Then I gave the rest, about 17 paintings, to him. You can get very sad and disappointed when no one wants your paintings.
Recently, you went back to oil paintings. Why is that so?
Some gallery owners requested that I hold an exhibition that’s different because I’ve been working a lot on watercolour paintings. I’ve also been doing oil on commission basis. So why not do an oil collection and show people what you do? It was very well received.
What kept you going despite the obstacles?
Everybody faces obstacles in this life, some more, some less. In painting, every day it’s just a piece of paper. It’s how you express what you have absorbed and digested on it. You won’t know what would happen. It’s what inspires you and motivates you to think. For me, it’s something new that I’ve produced, my very own and I’m proud of it. This kind of pride in the work that you do every day will keep you going.
How did you sustain your passion while you were a student?
I improvised certain things. I didn’t have enough money to buy oil paint, so I drew. In secondary school, sometimes my teacher would buy painting equipment and paper for me. In primary school, I had no means, so I would use charcoal to sketch on newspapers or old exercise books. I didn’t go to any art school.
Tell us about the best advice you’ve received.
Californian watercolour artist Dong Kingman said that it’s most important to have your name known and make it as simple as possible. He told me that people would remember me as Ong, which is a name simple and easy to remember.
You’ve received a lot of awards. Which ones mean the most to you?
Most important is the Silver Award [at the National Watercolor Exhibition] in Fuzhou, China. It was a nationwide exhibition and with China having such a big population, I considered that very important, as well as the awards won in USA and Australia. The Cultural Medallion too.
What advise would you give to young artists?
You have to keep going, in spite of what happens. In spite of downfalls. You can save on other things, but not on what you’re passionate about. Some might feel like giving up half way, but just persevere and carry on. I’m not an example, because I did a few turnarounds, doing the wrong things, before becoming a full-time artist. Now, it’s easy to get information. All you have to do is go online to get instructions. Why give up? You should be able to survive.
This article first appeared in Vol 2 of Gallery & Studio.
Sophie Loh Chui Nyet’s work combines the practices of ink painting and calligraphy in a style that attempts to pays homage to the tradition without being shackled by the discipline
Photos: Albert Tan
Dialogue in Ink, an exhibition of Chinese ink painting by Singaporean artist Sophie Loh, which ran from August 22 to September 13 was the inaugural exhibition for new art gallery Oviato Fine Art. In this day and age, a new art gallery opening always makes for interesting news. Even more so when artist and gallery owner are one and the same. “I wanted a small space; just big enough to paint and to display my work, and the work of other artists. And of course to survive,” says Sophie.
Surviving as an artist has first and foremost meant finding a way past that primary obstacle facing all aspiring artists – finding gallery representation. “When I show my work to galleries, they are not very keen. They say they have no buyers for my work, or that they don’t understand my work. It’s very difficult to get a gallery to represent you when you are not already famous.”
Complicating matters was the fact that Sophie did not take the established, accepted path towards becoming an artist. Instead of a fine arts degree from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), Loh graduated from Nanyang University in 1975 with a Bachelor of Arts. It was only upon graduation and finding steady employment that she truly began to devote herself to art. An activity she pursued with a vengeance, filling up all available free time attending classes in watercolour and oil painting, Chinese ink and calligraphy.
As with the majority of artists today, Loh’s artistic journey began with a fascination for western art. Soon, even weekend classes were simply not enough and Sophie decided to take time off work to study western art at Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The experience broadened her perspectives but Sophie nevertheless continued to practice both western and eastern forms of painting. Issues with her eyesight eventually compelled her to focus on calligraphy and Chinese ink painting. A deeper reconnection with the Chinese ink tradition ensued and in 1995, she moved to Nanjing to study Chinese painting and returned three years later with a Master of Fine Arts from Nanjing University.
It was at this juncture, while the artist was entering her 40s, and having built a good base in calligraphy, that things started to take shape artistically for Sophie. To further develop her talents, and also admittedly to find out where she stood as an artist, Loh sought out the guidance of Singapore artists and mentors including See Chong Tee, Fang Chang Tien, Wee Beng Chong, Tan Oe Peng and Koh Mun Hong.
“I studied under Tan Oe Pang from 1999 to 2001and he brought me to another level,” she explains. “My work was very traditional and he instilled in me a sense of composition, taught me how to distance myself from traditional work, and in so doing, helped me create something that looks modern.”
Her current exhibition comprises two series of works – New Rhythm of Ink series and Bloom series. The New Rhythm of Ink series, in particular, is the artist’s attempt to provide a modern take on traditional Chinese ink painting. The work combines the practices of ink painting and calligraphy in a way that that leaves viewers guessing where the calligraphy ends and the abstract art begins. As one art writer describes, Loh “writes her paintings and draws her writings”.
While Chinese calligraphy provided the starting point, Sophie’s early experiments trying to “deconstructing calligraphy” would lead her down an unusual path. Traditional calligraphy is essentially poetry but Loh sought to restrain herself by focusing on a few characters instead of an entire verse. Her technique of fewer characters and exaggerated brush strokes evolved over time into a style that dispensed with characters altogether, paring things down to the fundamentals – lines and brush strokes. “The original idea was to deconstruct Chinese characters but there were limitations. So I tried to free myself from the character and to just focus on the lines and strokes. It was a way of freeing myself from calligraphy,” she adds.
To Loh, art is as much an expression of individuality as it is of relevance. In her opinion, traditional Chinese painting runs the risks of being relegated to irrelevance, if it hasn’t already. “We spend so many years trying to master our skills but if there are too many people painting in the same style, even a beautifully painted lotus looks boring,” she says.
Through her unique composition, brush style and dashes of colour, Loh’s work offers a refreshing take on a traditional art form. In the process, she has won new fans although there are still many non-believers. “The younger ones…they are open to this style. The older ones with an art background, they can appreciate it also. They look at the strokes and the composition,” explains Sophie. “But some of the more conservative artists, and conservative collectors – they think you don’t know how to paint.”
The constant rejections from artists, collectors and gallery owners, appear to have fortified her resolve to keep innovating as an artist, culminating in her decision to open her own gallery in June this year. More than an outlet to sell her art, Sophie says the gallery provides a channel for an artist to reach out to others. “As an artist, you need to communicate with people, you need to show them your work,” she says.
And even as Dialogue in Ink may have ended for Loh the artist, Loh the gallery owner is hard at work on her next exhibition, a group exhibition featuring the works of fellow Singaporean artists Ang Ah Tee, Tay Chee Toh and Sim Pang Liang. The exhibition, called Nanyang Inspirations, will run from November 7 2015 to Jan 31 2016. For more information, visit Oviato Gallery at 04-44, The Adelphi. Tel: +65 9012 0433.