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.