Painting in Singapore

Discovering painting in Singapore

Painting in Singapore

There are many painting exhibitions in Singapore, but few dare stick their necks out to do “Painting in Singapore” and do it so well. This exhibition is a lightweight roster of contemporary local painters, with works from Boo Sze Yang, Jane Lee, Lee Young Rim, Ng Joon Kiat, Milenko Prvacki, Jeremy Sharma, Guo-Liang Tan, Willie Tay, and Ian Woo. The curator Tony Godfrey, said this: ‘There are painters on this island (as there are elsewhere) who have both a good critical awareness of the various traditions of painting and the imagination and dexterity to make new things within those traditions”. That said, these paintings are ‘new commissions’, sized and minted for this unique exhibition. This exhibition I would argue is useful and important to art educators because it presents a range of painterly styles and nuances, and icons in Singapore’s painting community.

From a painter’s perspective, the paintings on exhibit show the necessity to paint. This exhibition contains both abstract and representational paintings which would illustrate the interests and drive of contemporary painters. Some painters might take painting as a ritual, as much as brushing one’s teeth is; some might connect the (painting) process to an innate desire to represent an emotion, thought, feeling about a place, person, subject or object. Some are obsessed by the materiality of paint (skin) or an equally befitting substance; others in the content and context of painting. Some are self-absorbed in stains and washes and surreptitious technical processes; while some are fervent about mixing colours precisely, achieving scientific exactitude and how visual perception of the given image is affected by changing light.

To the informed eye, the paintings on exhibit also soothes and refreshes the mind. As a curated collection, the shapes and sizes made sense, and they do not crowd the individual colours and meaning of each individual work. At a glance, the paintings depart from the necessity to depict likeness to deceive the eye; even the figurative objects and subjects do so with deft and illusionistic brush strokes. Rather, they arrive collectively at depicting a painterly experience. The paintings are arranged with an intended circular visual flow, from plain block pastel colours near the entrance to sculpted paint on canvas, to streaks and back. Changing interest and changing ways of seeing allow artists and viewers today to appreciate abstract shapes, patterns, marks, symbols and color that are not mimetic. If painters could depict something new to the eye, they can catch our attention. If that something new stirs us positively, then it deserves a second look. Paintings, abstract or not, grow on you.

In Gombrich’s text The Image and the Eye (1999), he said that the human eye is selective. The mind sees what it wants to see. Being able to recall and recognize elements in our surrounding is an innate instinct and reaction. We see something associated with danger, our senses are heightened and our physical bodies are primed to react. Our visual perception of art, how we feel about it, is related to our prior experiences. From a psychological perspective, it is possible to explain and test why people are stirred by pictorial representations, other than experiencing something first hand. Seeing another person cry, tingles our eyes. Watching a moving scene in a movie might trigger the same emotions and tear glands if we let them. Our senses, all of it, are wired to our emotions and memories. Seeing something, recognising a personal connection or prior experience could trigger an emotion if we chose so. From this, we could speculate that viewers are uncomfortable with abstract art because they lack the prior experiential reference point.

In my case, I have had the good fortune of recognising the painterly styles and nuances. The exhibition is soothing to me because the paintings are largely cool and earthly and neutral, conveying a sense of bleakness if not for the accents of warm colours. That neutrality, sea of pastel colours, remind me of reflection time, quietness and solitude. Individually, the paintings are attractive because they playfully reminded me of other works of art, or because the artist had used an unusual painterly devices. Here, I will cite two examples.

In Lee Young Rim’s Untitled (2013), we might be fooled by the irregular shape to think it is an irregularly shaped canvas. Instead, it consists of two panels, held together by two pieces of wood that separate it. From far, the space between the two panels becomes a part of a whole piece of canvas. The space is like a rift in the painting, creating a visual effect similar to Lucio Fontana’s slash paintings: they draw attention to the space in front, and behind the painting. Examining the piece closer, the immaculate gallery wall, framed by the piece becomes as much part of the painting. The gestural brushstrokes form a light textured surface that obliges the eye to roam, before settling on an conspicuous blemish. As a piece to meditate on life, why do we gravitate towards the void and blemishes?

Ian Woo’s Bubble and the Egg (2013) reminded by of Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending the Staircase No. 2 (1912). The sharp angular forms are a slight departure from his usual raw, organic shapes. The angles, remind one of cubism, and its affiliated distortion of perspective and pictorial representation. In Bubble and the Egg (2013) a lot more negative space is depicted, where the layers beneath begin to show as our eyes begin to comb the painting. The layers of the painting become apparent, just as how we make judgement of character, if we look beyond the surface and into the depth.


Painting in Singapore
Curated by Tony Godfrey
2 August – 8 September 2013, Equator Arts Project, Gillman Barracks, Singapore

Gombrich, E. H. (1999). The Image and the Eye. (reprinted from 1982 volume) London: Phaidon.


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