There’s something in the air now about art – especially since the National Gallery’s blockbuster Minimalism show. As much as the creative niches of Singapore are familiar with such art movements, it still represented a moment of exhibition and showcase of minimalism. Minimalism and, by some extension, the fields of abstract expressionism and colour field painting have gained recent steam – a trend I first noticed in the increasing references to names like Ellsworth Kelly and James Turrell in fashion designers’ work.
It was with that train of thought that I chanced upon the artist Jamie Tan’s work. Jamie, a 29 year old Singaporean artist, is a fairly recent graduate from LASALLE College of the Art’s fine arts programme who just had his first solo show – Planes of Paradise – by Taksu in its Kuala Lumpur gallery. His work, as you will notice and realise, is – though not self-consciously – in a similar vein.
The eye-catching paintings by Jamie are an exploration of colour, obviously, but also lightly and evocatively offer a treatise of that most fundamental aspect of art and painting. In a breezy way, they suggest a captivating way of interacting with abstract painting.
ISSUE Magazine spoke to Jamie Tan to learn about his practice and this series of work's fixation on the topic of colour.
What is the relationship between your work and the abstract expressionists?
I was quite into very expressive expressionism, but what I find weak about expressionism is that it doesn’t really honour colour. Abstract tends to be muddy, I’d say. Things get a bit muddy, the colour is a bit muddy, and it’s just too messy for me. The potential of colour is not explored.
Why colour, then?
Colour’s been long talked about. From back in the Ancient Greek times until even the Renaissance. You can see that there’s a period where colour wasn’t used much because for them there was this idea or concept that colour is a kind of distraction or seduction. It’s like when you buy clothes: there’s certain colours that you like and there’s a certain kind of interest so colour can be used as a kind of propaganda.
As a kind of distraction?
From the real truth. You could call it a kind of chromophobia – they were a bit afraid of color. So there was a time in art when colour was not so much a focus and was abandoned.
But it’s not so abandoned now?
Not so much now, but I still saw a pattern when I was in school. You can see artists kinda skip the colour parts and move on to the conceptual. Colour is just a secondary and not a primary concern. Colour opens up a lot of questions for me. Like when you say the sky is blue, what does it mean? Or the road is grey? In your mind there are a thousand different blues and it depends on your subjective experience and how you experience something like the sea. Your idea of how blue the sea is is yours. My idea of how blue the sea is mine. That’s what I mean by colour staying in a state of latency. It attaches meaning to individuals and each of us attaches special meaning to it.
You saw an idea unexplored.
I don’t see anyone touching it here. In the past, yes, maybe Anthony Poon. But he’s passed on so it’s a long time ago. What is quite relevant here now is conceptual stuff. It keeps the ecosystem healthy, but as a painter the lecturers [in school] try to push you away from painting. People will ask why you still want to paint when you can do video and digital stuff.
But for me colour still plays a big part in the digital and physical realms, and it encompasses everything. So when I wanted to focus on [colour] I found it was the whole package.
Painting isn’t dead after all.
I paint because there’s a special relationship between the brush and the physical. I saw people stop painting but the more people didn’t want to paint, the more I wanted to. I still believe in it. It has its place.
What other perspectives have or haven’t changed?
In my time minimalism was not considered. Nobody gave a shit about it ‘cos we were not educated to know what it was about. Now you look at the National Gallery, and I think it’s good that it’s changing now. It’s more acceptable. When I did this series it took me a year or two to convince people about the work. When you go into the BA you have to propose your work and you can’t do it overnight. It took me quite a while to convince people to see what I’m trying to do.
What led you to the non-figurative?
I’ve nothing against traditional still life painters. Most of my best friends are painting traditional stuff and I really like them but I feel it’s a means to an end. Like after you paint a flower, is there more? If you break it down, the realist painter needs all these colour theories to mix colours, but I want something more. I don’t want to represent or copy something: there’s not much kick. I was also a teaching assistant at the community centres for art classes and there are tons of aunties out there who can paint traditional stuff really well. It’s just too rigid for me. They teach a set of colour theory and ask you to use it and paint flowers or apples and that’s about it. So it’s bounded by these rules. Colour, for me, has no rules and is supposed to be expressive and individual.
Isn’t your work bound by colour theory too?
I don’t really plan. For still lifes you need to plan. To use a particular red you need to mix this and that, but for me it’s not planned. I can change it anytime.
How do you approach the canvas?
You’ll realise most of them have a focal point in the center. So I usually choose that to focus on and it’s my limitation. It becomes the problem I have to solve in the painting. If I have this huge chunk of grey, what can I do in the surrounding to emphasise this? Basically I’m creating my own problem.
What are you trying to solve? Or rather is there a sort of answer you’re seeking?
I think the essence of my art practice is not to find an answer. It’s more to open up these questions that people can think about. What does colour mean to us?
Is colour emotional or theoretical to you?
A mixture of both. It can’t be just emotional – it doesn’t work that way. It’s always about half-half. If it’s full on emotional the colours will be a bit rigid and will start to look the same. Particularly throughout the series because you get attached to your colours.
What are you attached to?
Yellow. A very important colour. You can see most of them have a tinge of yellow. It can make a lot of hues and tones. You see yellow [points] here, here, here, and here… so many yellows but they’re not the same. And [points] here again, again, and again. I just realised I use a lot of yellow. Probably on the second solo I’ll use less.
What are you planning for in your second solo show in Singapore?
I’m going to make it more complicated and dense. They will be the same [form] but I want to fill in more colours and try to figure out a way to pack all of them together.
The names of your paintings are quite funky. Do they mean anything?
It’s all music I listen to when I’m painting. The title is just an entry point for the audience. I want to keep the work open, you create your own narrative. I wouldn’t want to tie the audience down with the titles being linked to language because I feel language and colour are totally different. Our language cannot compare to colour when we try talking about it. Our language is lacking a lot. We can only say it’s a kind of red, but we can’t put it in grammar that it’s a little red or slightly redder.
There’s Pantone, though.
But Pantone gives you numbers.
What was the experience of a debut solo show like?
It was quite a learning curve. I prepared it for eight or nine months. My biggest concern is how to make a painting stand out by itself and not need the rest to complement it. I met Wan (ed. Note: Suherwan Abu, the founder and director of Taksu Galleries) at my graduation show. I was already showing in Malaysia before and my works had already appeared there but it was quite low key.
When you show in and expo or fair you’re not the only one there so people will compare. You also think about whether the artist wants to sell the paintings. Because if he can sell them then he can make progress. For me the most concerning part is whether it can sell. Whether it’s buyable. If it’s not then I need to have other stuff to put rice on the table. But so far so good.
So saleability is important to you?
I try to ignore it. But maybe it is. That’s the fact of it because if you don’t sell then you must really persevere to continue painting. If you want your artwork to sell then I can say that you’re a serious artist.
That’s your definition of serious?
Yes. There are a lot who don’t make work to sell, but they have other venues they work in so they don’t really care whether they sell. If an artist is focused on selling and doing it full time then they’re a serious artist. It’s quite tough at the beginning ‘cos there’s nothing else every day. You wake up and you see the painting. Sometimes it’s a bit too much, and it’s not for everyone.
What is your work space like?
It’s in my room.
So you really sleep and wake up with your art all around you!
It’s all around me. But I make do with the space. Whenever I finish [a piece] they’re stacked on each other ‘cos there’s no space. A part of me is surprised I could complete a solo show just by painting in my room. That’s one thing I’m amazed about too because some people want a studio. They need this and they need that, but for all that they need money.
What are you working on as a progression or evolution of your art?
I want more air in my painting. I want it more airy and loose. Everything is too clean now.
Isn’t cleanliness – as opposed to muddiness – a goal of your painting?
I want them to be more loose so you can see that I’m really moving. These are very flat and I want you to be able to see my brush stroke. After doing these for so long I can paint them freehand. The eyes fix straight lines itself. There’s no difference when you paint slightly slanted or whatever because from far you can’t tell. That’s interesting to me.
What is the process like?
I paint freehand from inwards out. There’s a part that’s taped and one that’s not. These are oil paints so you have to wait for them to dry and I don’t have time for that. If I painted line by line I would have to wait three days for it to dry. I waited when I started out and I thought “I can’t work like that”.
But the starting point remains the same?
Always the same. It’s always going to be the same. That’s how I start.
As told to ISSUE Magazine.