How Long Can You See – Possibilities in Painting and Thinking – Rhett D’Costa

“As one of the oldest and most distinguished traditions of art making, painting has in recent years been spectacularly successful at both burying itself and returning from the grave. Declared redundant at the advent of photography nearly a hundred and fifty years ago, further undermined by subsequent developments in mechanical image making, painting has survived. It has done so partly by defining its own position ever more closely, and partly by virtue of the continuing influence of the painted image on every other kind of visual representation. As a result, painting is best seen not in opposition, but in relation, to other contemporary art forms like sculpture, photography, and installation.”[i]

In a post-modern era painting continues to be called into question, yet it manages to maintain currency. While many younger artists develop theoretically driven practices often manifest in installation, site-specific work, video and performative practices, there still exist artists who make art using the paint medium. If this means following the long tradition of painting through to modernism, so be it.

For many artists working in more temporal media, the production of art seems to have as much to do with management negotiations, institutions, curators, budgets, spaces and other logistical matters as it has to do with making art. Today one might walk into an artist’s studio and be confronted with a computer, scanner, fax and office equipment, and not see a sketchpad, easel, paints and canvas. The studio can resemble an office as much as it does the artist’s studio. A painter’s studio, however, will always play an important role as the site for the production of art. The need to be isolated in the studio working ‘with the painting’ and ‘through the painting’ and ‘in spite of the painting’ cannot be substituted. While the image might seem romantic, it is at the core of a painter’s methodology.

Ian Woo’s studio, as for many Singaporean artists (if they have a space at all!), is a small, tight space. At any given time it allows for only one painting to be viewed and painted. The space is shared also with Ian’s vast music collection and a window which looks out into a dense and further developing urban landscape. Because of the restricted studio space, one is limited as to how far one can step back from the painting. More often, one is forced to step into the different sections of the painting for closer inspection. The eye is made to constantly move around the work, connecting forms, displacing spaces, negotiating web-like patterns that hold the viewer and simultaneously scatter the eye to different parts of the picture plane. Tensions, vibrations, harmonies and pitches are created. Images in and out of focus seem familiar and yet strange. Common everyday objects take on new meaning and associations. Loose narratives are alluded to, but never ground or anchor the viewer. Spaces and forms (like the studio) seem overcrowded, jostling for attention. Yet they also seem to float, fracture and lead to other spaces and forms. As Ian’s notes mention, “… just so sparingly we have to pronounce ourselves so that the order of things can begin to take the shape of an inconceivable idea of another… Just so much we can add before every idea erases itself to begin to take shape of another.”[ii] “Freehand joining of lines, at times no aim in its point of connection, just grazing past, but form overall is the surprise.”[iii]

The sense of surprise and the reliance of the intuitive process is practiced by many artists and musicians. Without the reliance of photography or prepared sketches the unknown can be a precarious place for an artist in which to practice. How does one gauge success and failure, right and wrong, honesty and mimicry? It is a hard job to stand alone in the studio with tubes of paint and blank canvas, world experiences, masses of information, history, everyday circumstances, distractions, obligations and responsibilities – and paint something meaningful for oneself and an unknown audience. Relying on painting experiences, lateral thoughts, memories and emotions to circumvent this problem, the artist must find ways and means of allowing the painting to almost paint itself. Yet often you will hear painters talk about holding back and allowing the painting to speak and determine a direction of its own.

The paintings of Ian Woo are extremely considered and specific. This is contrary to some of the images within the paintings, which often seem unfinished and somewhat tentative. There is something dismissible yet engaging about the works. At times they seem full of ‘mistakes’ and suggest a lack of sophistication. In reality they are exactly the opposite. Ian is simple and earnest in his response to making a picture. As he says, “I am looking for a true representation of the process of painting. I do not hide things. I like to show the slips and mistakes, the vulnerable accounts; the process itself through brushstrokes reveals the thinking process. I don’t finish images. I want to show the skeleton, the structure, the incompleted things come together to complete a new thing.”[iv]

Ian approached me to write for this exhibition as he wanted a fellow painter to contemplate his work. Thus began a relationship of conversations and viewing of Ian’s work in his studio. Ian thinks and paints and paints and thinks with a beguiling simplicity. It is also mirrored in the way he talks and writes. His conversations and writings are engaging and reflective. They are often poetic meanderings with clues scattered throughout, showing how the sum of his writing, reflections and conversations transform into paintings. It is a deeply personal process. As anyone involved in such a process will tell you, it means wrestling with emotions, ideas and meanings. It is fraught with falsities, actualities and moments of spiritual awakening. Ultimately the process of painting helps one to make sense of the world and our relationship to it. Ian’s trust, openness and generosity in allowing me to spend time examining his personal sketchbooks, or ‘thought diaries’ (as I refer to them), gave me glimpses into his complex thought processes. The diaries indicate strong connections to spirituality (even though he does not always speak about it), his family and music, specifically jazz. These experiences and influences play key roles in Ian’s life and consequently have always been very important aspects and influences in his art-making.

Ian Woo paintings his pictures directly, without prepared sketches. Often a ground or series of grounds are placed on the canvas, sometimes dividing the pictorial space. Using a range of brushmarks and colours, images are placed directly and first-hand onto the grounds. There is little over-painting and reductive painting. The image must be pure and must stand. If not, the picture is rejected. Hesitations, nuances, fragility, quirky meanderings, bold marks and flat spaces are all valid and registered. While the forms and spaces stay suspended and seemingly incomplete, the paintings have the ability to engage and simultaneously dismiss the viewer. Time, tempo and sequence are essential ingredients in the picture and correlate directly with Ian’s involvement in music. The paintings are in no way bombastic or dogmatic. On the contrary, one can almost dismiss or miss them completely. They are full of silences and sounds which exist often like the subliminal background noises in our lives. However, if the viewer takes the time and trouble to become more aware and engage, the profundity of the experience is realized. Pictorially, while the paintings might seem abstract, they could not be more grounded in reality. It is a difficult and intrepid process which often gives the paintings the required tension. In this painting process the most asked question is perhaps the most difficult to answer – how do you know when the painting is over? Ian Woo simply states, “I just keep looking at the painting, looking for truth (spiritual and actual). It is like ‘a click’ – when you see it happening in the painting. Different resolutions – the hovering, the anticipation, the in-betweenness of something falling apart or coming together.”[v]

Ian makes beautiful, lyrical paintings. The viewer is enticed to enter and meander into the private voyage of discovery and perhaps find his/her own layers of meaning. For the paintings do generate many avenues for interpretation. Rather than visually describe familiar objects and spaces in realistic terms, the paintings seek to capture moments when the finite and mundane situations of the world gives way to intimations of the infinite. While certain forms are obviously grounded in simple observations of everyday objects from work and home environments, they point toward a higher form of vision which is captured or suggested visually and not verbalized exhaustively. By using colour, pattern, line, sequence and tone, the artworks provoke a conceptual questioning of the image’s validity and meaning. The works reflect the lateralness of the artist’s thought process and experiences. Or as Ian prefers to call his paintings – ‘mental images’.



[i] Quote from the Foreword for the exhibition and catalogue “Unbound” (Searle, Adrian – “Unbound”, The South Bank Centre, 1994.)

[ii] Notes from a sketchbook of Ian Woo – (‘When sound becomes object.’ 2nd December 1997.)

[iii] Notes and sketch from a sketchbook of Ian Woo – (‘How Long Can One See?’ not dated)

[iv] From a conversation with Ian Woo (not published – December 1999)

[v] From a conversation with Ian Woo (not published – December 1999)