Ian Woo and Painting – Binghui Huangfu

Ian Woo is a painter. He sees himself as an absorber or sponge of the sensations that come to him in his life. Painting for Ian is the process of sorting and distilling these inputs into a comprehensible form.

In the interview which I conducted with Ian as part of the preparation for this exhibition, I was interested to learn what motivates and influences the paintings he makes.

Ian sees painting as an intuitive process and relies on his practice as an artist to guide his judgements. His art is not afraid to be governed by the beauty of mark-making. The paintings are the documentation of his thought processes, a kind of meditation that relies on his deep sensibilities to find a resolution.

The paintings in this exhibition are individual works each contained and resolved only to the point that the integrity of surface has been achieved. Each work leaves the ‘space’ of non-resolution that brings us, the viewer, to the next canvas. It is this open exploration that engages the viewer in these paintings. We are allowed to watch the artist prioritise and express a complex group of influences and attempt to ‘order’ them for himself and for us.

As the viewers of Ian’s works, we see someone who is dedicated to pursuing the art of painting. Ian is uncompromising in his approach and in exploring the possibilities of painting. By this process he allows us to join him in this sure-footed search.

The following passages are the record of a conversation I had with Ian Woo.


Binghui Huangfu: When did you start doing this line of exploration we see in your painting?

Ian Woo: The first time I was using so many things in my paintings was when I first came back to Singapore from England in ’97. I guess I was trying to find the language of living here. Singapore is a very strange country, I grew up here, in a mix of Chinese and Western culture, a lot of American TV, Western movies and Hong Kong serials. There were two Chinese paintings in my house: one with a bunch of monkeys, the other was a picture of a tiger. My grandmother would say that if you wanted to be an artist you would have to be able to paint as good as this. When I went to the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, I wanted to paint like Van Gogh, I tried, but of course I couldn’t. Slowly, I developed what I tried to see in Art. A lot of my paintings are mental investigations, painting from imagination. In the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, I used to paint a lot of still life and worked on some idea of abstraction, then when I went to pursue my BA and MA in England and came back in ’97, this was the first painting I painted when I returned. (shows painting entitled “Wall of Fiction”)


BH: When you say that the things in your paintings are your mental images not from reality, what do you mean?

IW: When I work, I do not work from reference, let’s say I put a few slabs of paint on the canvas, move it and watch what happens. It’s very much to do with painting the idea of painting and discovering possibilities of picture making. Basically, the relationship between me and the paint, or me and whatever material I use is very important. Usually when I think of something that I want to paint, it doesn’t come out exactly the way I planned it to be, well… not yet, anyway; what I find interesting in this relationship is the growth of each organism that comes out from the paint, the inter-connections that results from negotiating the very different acts and possibilities of painting.


BH: How do you find your mental image?

IW: I wish people would ask me more questions like that. I like to paint atmospheres and spaces. Create multi-events, like how some areas in painting are crowded with things and how some are not, how things are coming together and falling apart. Like in this painting (points to “The Mindplant”) there are all these spaces and these relationships. I always think about how movies are made, how in movies you have one screen but it moves, the element of time, from one scene to the next, and you are left thinking of the last image/scene while trying to concentrate on the current one, whereas in a picture or painting there is only one frame… the picture is static. I try to be inspired by the difficulty and the possibility of creating the effect that things are moving and time is continuous. Here I’m trying to create a multi-event, multi-space where you find one space here and another there, some of which is empty, some not. I like the experience of making spaces and scenarios. I feel that when I paint, I’m part of the brush or paint, and this personal process should have some sort of effect on the viewer, if I can feel it then maybe so can the viewer, otherwise it’s very difficult because you are dealing with abstractions. The other thing I’m interested in is the place I’m living in – there are lots of things happening here, everything’s chopped up and it’s just too much change, movements fast, things don’t match, sometimes in the painting, things don’t match. They don’t belong to each other.


BH: Can you give me an example of how things don’t match?

IW: Reality does not always match, you have to find ‘a match’ or even stumble upon it. Beauty makes things match; in a lot of art making, whether it is about a sense of narration or it could be about a sense of ugliness, to match might be to strive for some sense of resolution, to complete the work, to make it say something, to try to clarify. As an artist when you look at the real world, you see lots of ugliness and not everything is beautiful and one wishes for certain ideals and I think that’s wonderful because that’s how life is, that’s what makes it alive. These mental images are a filter of the real world, I rearrange them, almost like the real world filters through me and comes out in the painting, but the painting is not exactly describing the real world. I think it’s another thing altogether how things don’t match For example you take a walk in the hawker centre and next to you is a nice posh shopping centre, very structured, very monochromatic and you look back, you see a lady in pastel flowered shorts, you have mixed aesthetics around you, it’s chaotic. I think chaos can be beautiful and I try to bring some of it in to my work, so sometimes people look at my work and they think it’s too much to spend time with it so they just walk past.


BH: Before you mentioned space and time. In film, there is much time passing and you want to put all of that in one thing. Are you trying to balance the chaos or are you representing the chaos?

IW: I try to represent chaos; I always say that I cannot fully represent the reality and that what I make is an illusion, painting is an illusion and I have to respect the illusion of the painting but I like the painting to be inspired by the chaos, by what’s around. Sometimes the painting seems to be falling apart but I don’t mind it. I like to create this sense of falling apart, suspense and sense of hovering, coming together… almost together! I want to clarify the notions of chasing time, I was influenced by this music I heard during my BA studies. It was written by Charles Ives, an American composer, he once said that when he was a child, he heard two bands marching and they were playing different tunes but when the two different tunes merged together it gave him the sound of real time. In some art there is only one perspective of time and in music there is this thing called variations, Beethoven had Variation 1, 2 and 3 and each described a different mode of time, well, 3 different various coming together at you was what Mr. Ives’ work sounded like, it was a riot, chaotic, but very rich and surprising. The experience is akin to having the various activities around this building be seen or even heard simultaneously. Multiple perspectives in time.


BH: Do you sometimes in the process of painting not get what you want?

IW: Sometimes I don’t really know what I want. I always say that ideally it should be like this: before the start of a painting – always difficult, but when I start, it’s usually good, then in the middle, it ranges from horrible to exciting, and the final part should be surprising, of course the resolution is special and different for every work. In some of my paintings there are some mistakes that I leave or work around and I find that paintings sometimes need to have some bad stuff. In some paintings, it’s good to have some things that don’t work; it creates a relationship, it gives me a chance to discover new possibilities.


BH: In your paintings, you use many approaches, the brush strokes, the mark-making, do you always vary your technique in each painting?

IW: I use a variety of styles in painting, never just one. Living in this time, I find it difficult to use one style to paint, because the history of painting is so rich. The history and language of painting is so varied and available, so I just edit and find a way of putting them together. If you ask me why I use these shapes and marks, I would say it’s just to create a certain movement and space in an area. Emotionally you want to put things down and it’s called residue of expression.


BH: In a contemporary art world you remain a painter. Do you question why you are doing it?

IW: I feel that somebody still needs to paint and continue with it and we still live in homes and we can still put pictures on the wall. I find challenge in painting because it is static, two-dimensional and I still want to find out more of what you can bring out of it. I find that if I move to installation I would just stop short of investigation. Then another story is when I was pursuing my BA, my tutor asked me why I was still painting. Do something else, take an object next to your canvas, make something instead of using your canvas, paint different objects, use other materials, so it was a good idea and I took some things, put them together, made this work and it looked … difficult! It made me laugh, and I discovered that I couldn’t take that ‘thing’ very seriously. As for now, I still feel I can find more things in painting and to move away would be to stop short of my investigations. I’m a person who just wants to focus on one thing at a time. Sometimes I see other people’s work and I think it’s fantastic and wish I could do that but maybe if I tried I could. I guess sometimes you have to decide, choices in life are very important. The reason why I stick to painting is because I know I can do it well and I have developed some kind of language. I feel it’s worthwhile to continue questioning, searching what I’ve found, to go deeper, questions like why I go for beauty and sometimes ugliness, is something that makes perfect sense to me.


BH: What was the impact of travelling overseas on your work?

IW: When I was in Europe, there was a lot of spatial inspiration, I could see lots of horizon. In Europe I simply wanted to portray more of my oriental being, it’s funny as far as I think back of my history, I don’t come from a very Chinese educated background although I’m Cantonese. I’ve always asked my mother why I could never recover my roots. I’ve lost it, and I never really bothered to find time to look for it and as far as being a Singaporean when I went to England, I became proud about my orientalness because I think it is easier to be that way when one is not invaded by the familiar.


BH: You have received a number of grants and awards, does that have a strong impact on how you do your painting?

IW: I don’t think about that actually. I appreciate that people support me and they like what I do. If you just take it as an affirmation, it’s very important, it makes me want to work harder.


BH: Do people react to you differently?

IW: Suddenly, everyone wants to talk and know more about my work, it’s funny but I think it’s only normal.


Binghui Huangfu is a curator at Earl Lu Gallery.