Monthly Archives: July 2010

Lim Yew Kuan

Understanding Modernism

Lim Yew Kuan

The works by Lim Yew Kuan would be familiar to few contemporaries. More recognisable to artists who have practiced painting or graduated from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) in the 60s and 70s, the works on exhibit live and breath Modernism.

Modernism is a western art historical moment in which art styles/techniques/materials developed in tandem with modern culture and thinking commonly associated to the mid- to late nineteenth century.  Another perspective, Modernity describes the art when Paris was still the centre of the art world (at least the reception of it). Some will say, Singapore’s own modernity — shifts in understanding of what art can and should look like — emerged more strongly in the post-war 50s and 60s. Modernity in art, is a tussle between the avant-garde artists and the critics accepting what they think should be art. Lim Yew Kuan’s paintings in western art traditions became the yardstick to measure Singapore art.

In Lim Yew Kuan’s picture perfect paintings, you could see aesthetics and sensibility familiar to the highest accolades given to Western fine art: strong lines showing great deft in draughtsmanship, magnificent colour sensibility as hues and shades blend effortlessly, bringing the subject matter (accurately) to life.

There is great merit in viewing this exhibition, or thinking about a grander repertoire of the artists of that generation. Firstly, it shows to a local audience, who has no access to real paintings (not dodgy internet ones) hanging in European museums, Modernism anchored in the western ideas, materials and techniques. Here, we see superb oil on canvases, of typical subject matters that train the hand. We see the artist experiment with iconic Western art forms, from sketches, oils, intaglio print-making; academy subject matter such as nudes, which perhaps is still taboo to most Singaporean audience, still-lifes and landscapes. Sadly, the range of each media/craft is not displayed to show the extent of the artist’s explorations.

Secondly, we see Modernism applied in a localised context. In his light watercolour wash depicting workers sitting on the grass, one can feel the shadows of Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass (Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, 1862-63). In some sense, the artist was trying to reconcile an early impressionist style, rooted in a very different ideological world to a more conservative, local context. And by doing so, a pastiche happens – the paintings seem to mimic the western master counterparts. This explains why his ‘The Kiss” looks familiar to Rodin’s, yet different. This possibly explains that the Nanyang Style was nothing more than a Impressionist-like fad.  But despite a mis-labeled ‘style’ because hardly anything was common in the artists that exhibited as Impressionists, Impressionism was a loose term to group renegades of Romanticism and Neo-classicism, it is still perhaps de facto most known art movement of all times. Just count the number of advertisement pastiche based on Impressionism – from ABN AMRO’s preferred banking card, to Van Gogh Vodka chocolates.

Thirdly, his body of works explains an artist’s interest to shift towards pictorial abstraction. His Seaside (1966) hint the feeling of the Sublime, transcending the pictorial climax of realistic representation. A woodcut, a vastness of the sea is depicted with controlled horizontal cuts, and the sea melts into the sky. This vastness perhaps echoed the sentiments of post-independence, a sense of being overwhelmed by rapid national agendas in areas of defense, economy and standards of living. Art then, received understandably less attention. As a practitioner in those trying times, the value of art splits between its monetary exchange value and the deeper, spiritual value. The spiritual value of the artworks require more re-coding, and contextualising. After the Asian Tsunami of 2004, Riding the Storm (2006) is possibly more metaphoric and symptomatic of climate change or even surviving economic storms. All these worthy of contemplation and comparison to JMW Turner’s late sea series, that paralleled Industrialisation.

Lim Yew Kuan shouldered the responsibility as principal (1963-1979), to develop NAFA into a premiere local arts institution. It would be fair to postulate his aesthetics have influenced nearly 2 decades of graduates from NAFA. His real influence, awaits to be uncovered by art historians researching into his longitudinal and latitudinal impact on peers, students, and younger artists.

5.5 of 10 stars, for the publication, and the feature of an important 2nd generation artist.

10 – 22 July 2010, NAFA, Lim Hak Tai Gallery

Rediscovering Yeh Chi Wei

Recovering Patchworks in Singapore Art

Rediscovering Yeh Chi Wei

The catalogue will probably do the artist more justice in describing his style. His tastes are eclectic, preferring the texture of huge head statues of the Angkor Wat, the ornamental Javanese woodcarvings, Chinese plate motifs and Chinese stone carvings or calligraphy.  His interest represented the desire to travel Southeast Asian, seeking to understand the position of Singapore he called home. Rightfully, his art stems from the appreciation of arts (and crafts) from Southeast Asia.

Like French artist Henri Matisse, his composition has a collage-like quality, abstracting ornamental patterns into elaborate compositions heavily layered and impastoed. Like lacquerware, His choice of colours are subdued and earthy, reflecting his austerities for texture. Textured brushstrokes, layers of it, was what gave his figures skin, flesh and life. The gestural impasto and earthy colour could have represented the layers of histories that cover his Southeast Asian artifacts and he was revealing our incomprehension of them.

His painted figures have elongated necks, graphic-representative torsos and simplified poses. The faces loose details gaining anonymity, much like the sculptures and reliefs he collected. The facelessness only matched by the absence of the artist’s self-portrait.

Paintings, such as Singapore Sea Front (1961), reveal his interest in abstracting the picture plane similar to Cheong Soo Pieng or Chen Wen Hsi. The careful placement of geometrical and organic forms create a resemblance to a patchwork quilt, tickling the mind to see other shapes and objects. Again, the rich layering suggest an interest in colours more than visual representation.

The exhibition layout used the two wings effectively to set the context (Ten Person Group), and the artist’s works. By presenting artifacts that the artist collected, and making wall-text references to details from these objects the viewer could visibly trace his inspiration. What may not be immediately evident is his influence on younger artists, even though TNAGS lays claim to his leadership in Singapore 20th century art.

Placing his determination and artistic accomplishments on the same page as the Nanyang Style, The National Art Gallery, Singapore (TNAGS) is making a bold statement to recover bits and pieces of our local art history. Yeh Chi Wei might just spark research interests for other artists that made stylistic differences in the 50s-60s. While many will sympathise with the artist for ‘falling into obscurity’, the reason to create art transcends.

7.0 of 10 stars for the amount of research, curatorial direction and potential to spark interests in Singapore Art history. The body of works is visibly lesser than the retrospective staged for Chen Wen Hsi.

27 May – 12 Sep 2010, TNAGS at SAM
Catalogue, with accompanying CD-ROM, available at S$60. Limited special online price at S$55.

For once, a contemporary review of a Singapore Artist in the New York Times:

Realism in Asian Art

Acknowledging the influence of Western Art

Realism in Asian Art

Subject matter and technique mark the distinction of a Realist painter.

The exhibition pulls together a collection of works from Asia that will connects with an Asian audience with their virtuosity to manipulate paint to photographic likeness. The term realism, could refer to painting in the representational tradition, painting as close to what the eyes could see. Art buffs would add that Realism, is an art historical term, referring to the treatment of ordinary subject matter ‘rejecting the rhetoric and artifice’ of imaginative and visionary 19th century Romanticism. Gustave Courbet, Francois Millet are fine examples of that subject matter and realistic representational painting technique. For students, the exhibition is an excellent opportunity to see artworks by artists from their art syllabi.

The exhibition acknowledges the influence of Western Art on the development of Asian Art. Perspective, the mathematical understanding of depicting an environment on a 2 dimensional surface was popularised by the 15th century Renaissance artists.  Their paintings had single vanishing points that lead the viewers’ eyes into the picture frame, creating windows of illusion. Perspective is crucial to create pictures that are representational. As Southeast Asia became colonised, the art market shifted with new powers, to the demand for familiar singular-perspective oil paintings. Asian artists who painted in this new media and tradition inherited its virtues and historical baggage.

Some of us will see this exhibition with a sense of detachment while poring over the technique or examining the subject of the painting with our own understanding of Asian history. They lack the monumental feel that Lourve Museum or Museum D’Orsay in France will impart. Others might feel a new sense of sight, understanding how art could form a social commentary or criticism in more subtle ways than rallies and protest marches. These works are mellow, resilient against the fad of conceptualism, transcending the everyday they represent.

The adventurous exhibition design with the sloping wall fixtures do little to explain the curatorial concept of the exhibition. Intended to guide and frame the visitors’ understanding of ‘types of paintings that represent realism’. For example, it suggests only paintings in “social commentary and criticism” section are critical. The interior decor, seems to favour wood verneer and uplighting, focusing on the curatorial wall text that greets you as you are channeled through the exhibition. Instead of accentuating the artworks, this seems to compete for attention.

However, this exhibition has several distinctions from other permanent collection exhibitions. The brimming range of works give a more thorough illustration of an ‘artistic style’ common in modern Asian art. The larger wall text is generally helpful but the smaller ones may appear iffy to some, as it repeats and overlaps in some areas. The activity corner in level 3 allows younger museum goers to learn through play, some of the considerations artists have when they make art.

6.0 of 10 stars

The National Art Gallery, using SAM premises, 9 April – 4 July 2010
Catalogue “Realism in Asia” vol. 1 available at the bookshop for S$25.