As an art educator, Tan Ping Chiang channeled his talents towards guiding a generation of Singapore’s fine art students. Now as a full-time artist, he’s fully focused on nurturing his own development.
Photos by Albert Tan and Mulan Gallery
“Technique will only take you so far” says artist, sculptor and essayist Tan Ping Chiang. The measure of an artist, he adds, is his ability to continuously innovate. Tan speaks from experience. As a former art educator at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), Tan has overseen the artistic development of thousands of art students.
“Technique is not important,” he explains. “Anybody can learn technique. In six months, I can teach a student to draw an apple that looks like an apple. But in three years, I might not be able to teach a student to be innovative, to be able to generate good ideas. A good artist is innovative, is open-minded to other people’s work. Good artists always challenge themselves – to draw differently from other artists, to draw different from what they themselves drew yesterday.”
A graduate of NAFA himself, Tan headed the academy’s Applied Arts Department from 1981 to 1992, and the Fine Arts Department from 1987 to 1991. A career as art educator, and growing familial obligations, meant that his own artistic pursuits had to take a back seat to those of his students. Apart from participating in group exhibitions at Japan and France during the 1960s, and another at the National Museum Art Gallery of Singapore in 1990, Tan’s profile as an artist has been extremely low profile to say the least.
Prior to his self-imposed isolation, Tan was an accomplished sculptor and his more public works include three major pieces entitled Cultural Development of Singapore located within Dhoby Ghaut MRT station. Yet for the better part of three decades, the art educator was content to stay out of the public eye, and simply paint for pleasure.
The affable, chatty 75-year-old insists that while he may have stopped exhibiting, he never stopped painting. It was only in 2006, after his two sons had graduated, that Tan felt the time had come commit himself fully to his art. “I could finally paint every day and I could paint what I wanted,” he says.
One thing this artist adores doing is hanging out at his neighbourhood coffee shop. It has become a sort of daily ritual, to go to the coffee shop for breakfast after his morning exercise, and then soak in the sounds and the sights – people ordering food, reading the papers, having conversations and arguments. “The coffee shop is a very important part of Singapore culture, it’s an important part of life in the heartlands,” he shares.
Tan’s work bears a style and colour that is heavily influenced by traditional Chinese ink painting. Fewer colours, plenty of clean space or as he says: “Less is more. It won’t please everybody. But I didn’t want it to be decorative. I want it to touch people’s hearts.”
Over four years, Tan says he made close to 30 paintings inspired by what he saw on daily visits to the coffee shop. These paintings were displayed at his solo exhibition called Kopi Culture, at Mulan Gallery in June this year. Kopi Culture was in fact his second exhibition with the gallery. The first, Lines of Poetry, was held in January. Two solo exhibitions in the span of six months must be quite a turnaround from the “quiet, easy life” of an art educator he earlier pursued.
“Yes, I isolated myself for more than 28 years but the market has changed. People are travelling more, and they are becoming more exposed to art and culture,” he says, adding that when he was starting out, only expats bought abstract, modern art. Singaporean collectors, he says, tended to prefer realist paintings, especially landscape paintings.
Tan’s work looks like he paints exclusively in water-colour painting although the artist actually works with a variety of media spanning watercolour, ink, oil and crayons. He cites Picasso, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, and first generation Singapore artists Cheong Soo Pieng and Chen Wen Hsi as artistic influences.
One benefit of having more time on his hands to concentrate fully on his craft, apart from being able to stage more solo exhibitions is in being able to indulge in multiple projects concurrently. For example, another artistic theme close to Tan’s heart is his fascination for mountains. He loves visiting them, in addition to painting them, and has already completed over 10 works in what promises to be a stunning “Mountain” series, should he ever decide to collate them for display.
Apart from providing the subject matter on which to paint, travel, whether to the mountains or to cities, is something that helps Tan to stay innovative. And he makes it a point to visit art galleries while overseas. “A good artist is open-minded and looks at art objectively. But you set out your own position and use your technique,” he says.
Tan’s work can be found in the private and public art collections of United Overseas Bank, DBS Bank, Changi International Airport, National Museum Art Gallery Singapore, and the National Museum in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
For more information about the artist’s work, visit Mulan Gallery at 36 Armenian Street, Singapore 179934. Or call +65 6738 0810 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was first published in Vol 7 of Gallery & Studio.