Review: 25th UOB Painting of the Year Exhibition

A necessary review

Unlike other reviews I have written, I find it extremely difficult to give this review a tagline. The works are diverse and varied in categories, more so than the competition’s ‘representational’, ‘abstract’, ‘photography’ and in the ‘junior’, ‘youth’ and ‘open’ entry groups. Familiar names of participants on wall labels, familiar painting styles and themes flash across my mind during my brisk walk through the curved Jendela Gallery. The most unique local styled painting would still have to be Ong Sek Chern’s painting. Some others are inspired by Impressionistic studies, Jenny Saville’s style, or Photoshop inspired bitmap filters.

The exhibition is arranged according competition award groups, starting with the ‘open’, leading to ‘youth’ and ‘junior’. The works are tightly hung, leaving very little wall breathing space between the works. As an critic to the participants, organizers and judges this exhibition is best a gallery of impressive works, with few sparks here and there. But not enough to start a fire or revolution in the local painting scene. Some works in the open section are in need of reminder of the importance of craft in painting, unless the paintings are not handled properly during transport. The junior and youth works remain the most impressive and less trying (I am un-ashamed to be biased towards youth and junior works, provided they did most of the work). The Open works come across as muted.

The name of this exhibition has always baffled me. Or rather, the resulting exhibition has always confused me. The painting of the year refers to one ‘grand’ winner of this illustrious and prominent art competition, making the rest seem almost trivialized. Some artists termed this the make or break competition, non-NAC painting grant, the carrot-to-keep-on-painting-competition. Some see it as an opportunity to challenge one’s painting skills, more than ‘gaining wider recognition’.

I can imagine the jury had a tough time. When you begin to rank art, placing one before the other, you slip into a position of power more than mere superior taste and judgment eye. The audience should understand, the works on show regardless of age grouping, represents a selection of works that subjectively appeal to the judges, and I always liken the competition to a kind of high-odds lottery, regardless of what the media says about the jury/bank’s objective meritocracy in promoting visual arts in Singapore.

Speaking about chance, one work by Teo Chai Guan, “Portrait of Mum” seems most apt. The painting/print is black and white and a montage of hundreds of tiny lottery result slips pictures. A lone shadowy patch of black occupies 1/24 of the painting. In a nation where critique of legalized gambling is shunned, the work becomes very suitable to illustrate the nation’s obsession with the lottery, for Big Sweeps, 4-D, Toto and this competition. It makes a community of artists and artist wannabes hopeful, just as the thousands that queue up at betting stations to buy dreams. A competition of this scale without any explanation, lecture, documentary or workshops to explain the process and reason of ‘Painting at its best’, is probably only a derby where the racer and horse are paraded as famed, before possibly fading into oblivion.

Something else that disturbs me are the paintings by Alvin Ong. The paintings are masterfully painted and De Chirico inspired to the core. The works are spaced more generously. The space allocated must be one of the smallest solo exhibitions to date. The lighting within the paintings are impeccable and inspiring The winning painting, “The Window” from last year’s competition, I must say, is very badly framed, with glass over an oil painting and abundant reflection to kill the painting’s subtle hues, shadings and omni-present mysterious iconic billboard poster in the representational painting. If the painting was any representation of our appreciation to past year winner’s works, Painting is really dead when hung like that.

2.0 of 5 stars

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