President’s Young Talents Exhibition Interview – Salleh Japar

Ian Woo has drawn critical attention for his distinctive ‘drip and leak’ paintings – works that emphasises creative spontaneity and immediacy. His body of works represents an expanding interest and exploration among Singapore artists for the art tradition popularly described as late Abstract Expressionism, exemplified in the works of international artists such as Cy Twombly. His imagery proposes definite geometric forms offset by the ‘accidental’ clot of paint, slashes or rubbings. Woo’s paintings express the problematics or dynamics of representation as the artist renders interpretations of spaces, objects, emotive states, and events, mediated by the arbitrariness of memories and mental pictures. He describes himself as ‘an editor of paint’, in which he has at his disposal a broad spectrum of painting skills, methods and strategies. The result is a series of pictorial landscapes, composed of markings and planes that at times appear as discursive monologues and which, at other times, shift between representational and abstract forms. Through his simple observations of everyday objects, events and emotional states, the artist entices viewers to enter into and meander through his private voyage of discovery and meanings.

Ian explains the methods and processes involved in his paintings.


Can you briefly describe how your works had evolved from the initial years of art training at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts then later in UK, namely at Kent Institute of Art and Design (KIAD) and Winchester School of Art?

At Nanyang I painted gestural works and later moved into geometric-type works, which echoed Peter Halley’s descriptive Abstracts. While in the UK, I got disinterested in abstraction. I felt insecure about its inability to relate to the public, so I created a series of figurative works that were to me ironically very mysterious and expressed the sense of being and meaning of life. It was as though they were Samuel Beckett’s characters.

After reading Roland Barthe’s ‘The Responsibility of Forms’ and his semiotic renderings of Twombly’s works and Umberto Eco’s ‘The Open Work’, my faith in the notions of ambiguity and abstraction was restored. During my stay at Winchester, I started to combine abstraction and the various degrees of representation into works, and gave them very descriptive titles. At present, I am compiling various vocabulary of painting from which I would be able to recall forms, whenever there is a need to create multi-faceted events in my painting. I filled my picture with many different behaviours of gesture, space, pulling on all sides, reacting or denying each other.


Is that vocabulary of painting you mentioned developed through the painting process? Can you explain a little bit more?

I start by painting an atmosphere suggesting movement, infinity or muteness. Then I have a piece of paper placed on my right hand with a certain word that is derived and suggested by the image I made, for example the text or word ‘embroidery’ or ‘sweeping statement’. Also, I make drawings of the various steps I may have made, most of which I actually carry out without exact instructions. The text may suggest the entire experience of the painting.


Besides the use of text and the suggestive image, formal elements like spatial compartmentalisation play an important part in your paintings. How did this come about and what do you want to make out of it?

The purpose of those compartments is to create spaces and introduce other events within a single larger space. I derived this method of compartmentalising from the boxes in comic strips, which I find to be a very creative method in narration. These compartments helped to define worlds and connections to other dimensions and spaces.


The spaces, which you described within these compartments, move freely from one visual reference point to another. One notable reference was the series done after your weeklong residency in Braidwood, Australia, where the landscapes you created made references to urban and the interior spaces. Were there necessary compromises or changes in the manner you execute your work as you shift from landscape to urbanscape or interior-scape in a single series you call mental images?

I need that tension and compromise in the paintings I make. For the Braidwood series, I instinctively wanted patches of dirt, ground colour and branch-like twig renderings to be features in the paintings. As for the evocation of the interior, it was made through the effects of angulated line works and artificial tonalities and colours, and I even at time introduced ‘close-ups’.


You mentioned elsewhere about the influence of music in your painting, particularly the works of Morton Feldman and Charles Ives. How do you make that relation between music and painting? Is the relationship purely an aesthetic one?

Music is a passion and a form of relaxation. I find that reading about how certain composers think, and creative methods they adopt, has been very useful in developing my works. It seems to bring a sense of affirmation; for example Charles Ives creates a wonderful and chaotic music out of different key signatures. He allows a person to realise a real-time equivalent to that of life unmeasured. Like the compartments of events simultaneously doing different things, allowing the arbitrariness to notate its own sense of relationships.


Another body of your work consisted of drawings. They look somewhat similar to the approaches developed in your paintings, how do you define them?

My pencil drawings are like skeletons. It is microscopic and slow in its growth. The watercolour drawings were more spontaneous as in the nature of the medium. They do behave conceptually in the same way as the paintings. I do think the medium dictates a different pace for my mind and body to react.


It is common for your contemporaries to express themselves in forms such as installations and performance art. But why choose to be a painter?

I like the romantic notion that is linked to history of painting. I find the idea of hanging a picture or ‘world’ on someone’s wall with his or her furniture simply fascinating. The fact that a culture was created from this practice amazes me. I find living in a confused climate of cultural dilemma, and being able to make reference and relation to the history of painting, exciting. I have attempted to extend a painting by adding bits of material and further extend it as an installation piece, but I only found myself unable to look at it seriously.


How do you see the direction and future of painting?

Good, I do not think anyone will stop hanging pictures on the wall as long as there are these compartments of privacy to be constantly built for our lives.