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.