United Overseas Bank: Discerning Art Patron Extraordinaire
A title that fawning can really only be sardonic, no ? <lol>
The obvious truth is, I don’t much care about, or for, UOB’s Painting of the Year competition.
Which is my way of warning readers that this is going to be one long roast.
The whole idea of one of the nation’s top art prizes being solely for painting is pretty bizarre — not to mention retrogressive. How large is Singapore’s pool of decent artists that UOB feels an award just for painters indeed “encourage[s] local artists to persist in their creative endeavours, and provide[s] recognition for the best creative works” ? (In their own words.) This may or may not be news to a bunch of bankers, but the “best creative work” these days isn’t necessarily produced on canvas. Besides, if the roll call of past winners is anything to go by — the complete list at the end of the post — the organisers and judging committees have had issues with their own categories: the 1987 laureate, for one, was Baet Yeok Kuan’s Man and Environment I (below), a mash-up of various found objects and plaster casts of faces, all tied up with twine like one giant, unwieldy postal package. I mean, Baet’s piece can be considered painting only in the broadest, most generous sense; otherwise, it’s pretty much what it looks like, a Rauschenberg-ian ‘combine’ of the two- and three-dimensional. Then there was the photography debate: for two years running, in 2007 and 2008, the prize was handed out to photographic works, Anatomical Fantasies of Meat by Joel Yuen, and Zhao Renhui’s Space In Between #1, #6, #63, respectively. And last year’s winner, 18-year-old Bai Tian Yuan’s What (below), was based on a photograph, which also raised a furor — apparently by folks who’d never heard of the photorealist movement, or pictorial tools like Durer’s grid (imagine how Raphael would’ve reacted to Durer’s lil’ invention).
Bai Tian Yuan and her winning entry, What (2010). Image from Flickr user ArtSingapore Fair 2010.
Those couple of admirable blips aside, the favoured UOB strategy has mostly been one of safe, static picture-making. And this year’s honour roll, now on display at the Jendela gallery at the Esplanade, doesn’t buck the trend. Granted, the actual winning entry is pretty good: Gong Yao Min – who now joins Kit Tan Juat Lee as one of two two-time winners – used Chinese ink on rice paper to depict a dense cityscape of skyscrapers and colonial structures, which rise like a phantasmagoric megalopolis above scenes of local roads and traffic (below). Titled My Dream Land, the combination of craftsmanship, traditional Chinese materials, a modern sensibility, and patriotic fervour on the part of an immigrant (Gong moved here from China in the ’90s) probably proved too potent a mix for the judges. The other winning works though, were, well … let’s just say it — pedestrian. Ong Jie Yi’s Old Haunt (below), for one, which won a Platinum award and 10,000 SGD, was about as insipid as it gets. A torn poster of the Haunted Changi movie — which also sucked, by the way — and close-ups of peeling paint and shadows of leaves were intended to convey a sense of dereliction and eeriness. And that’s all there is to it: cliched imagery and banal sentiment. Lester Lee’s The Idea of Great Success (below) received a Highly Commended Award, and 2,500 SGD; as the monetary aspect suggests, it was even less interesting than Ong’s work. An amateurish portrait of some hybrid creature, along with symbols gesturing at conventional notions of personal success, it too married idea, image, and execution in one uninspired chain of epic blandness.
I always knew the UOB laureates weren’t terribly compelling, but this was beyond the pale.
I wonder if UOB realizes that stuff like this is just reinforcing every negative stereotype out there about how démodé it is. On the economic front, a hyper-aggressive, rapidly expanding Citibank is pretty much giving it a run for its market share, and it’s continued efforts at corporate sponsorship of the arts in such an .. unenlightened manner isn’t doing it any favours in the public eye. If it wasn’t for the 30 grand in cash they were doling out, I wonder if anyone would care about the award at all …
Artist Gong Yao Min with his work, My Dream Land. Image from TODAYonline.
Old Haunt, Ong Jie Yi. Image from thinking, reflecting.
The Idea of Great Success, Lester Lee. Image from For Art’s Sake! (The scorecard reflects the grade that the painting received from one of Martin’s readers – which was 1 out of 5.)
A companion exhibition, titled Beyond A Prize, is currently showing at the ION Art gallery, located on the fourth floor of the mall. It features their winners from 1982 — when the award was first given out — to 2000, the more recent entries having had their own show last year, which I missed. (A pity — it would’ve been great to see Yuen’s piece in the flesh, or Namiko Chan Takahashi’s Charisse, a nude portrait which looks amazing even in reproduction.) Nonetheless, the work of several of the older laureates definitely still held their own. The highlight of the afternoon for me was Anthony Poon’s Waves (below) from 1983, a large, aquamarine-coloured canvas featuring his signature motif, punctiliously plotted on a grid, its patterning and colour scheme of cool hues clearly calculated to rhyme and dance and pulsate. Wee Shoo Leong’s Yuen (Affinity) (below) was also a revelation — why haven’t we heard or seen more from him lately ? — a calm, phlegmatic, carefully delineated still-life of various objects on a desktop, the most salient of which is an empty birdcage, posed before an expansive wall of blank space.
Those, however, were few and far in between. True to form, the show was mostly a display of UOB’s utter lack of imagination when it comes to being a corporate collector. Chng Chin Kang’s She Loves Me But She’s Not My Mummy (below), which was awarded the prize in 1998, deserves the lion’s share of brickbats here. It’s not a bad work, really, the artist’s choice of floral fabric as canvas even demonstrating a certain flair, but as far as being “Painting of the Year” goes, it’s dismal. The theme is obvious to a fault — yes, being raised largely by foreign domestic help is causing an emotional disconnect between parents and children these days, everyone knows that, it’s like saying “How awful it is that there’s war in this world” — but, even worse, the figures simply had no life to them. A quick comparison with Fan Shao Hua’s 2000 winner, They (below), hung on a wall nearby, which also depicts the sundering of familial bonds, throws the limitations of Chng’s vision into relief: Fan borrows a couple of Post-Impressionist techniques from Degas, employing a telling use of compositional space and unexpected figural cropping to drive his message home. Next to it, Chng’s figures just look sterile, and the work hackneyed. Likewise, Hong Zhu An’s Yi-Er-San (One, Two, Three) (below), which, according to the label, features the prominence of the calligraphic line as a means of conveying “the mystique of a transcendental world”, was pretty unimaginative, despite a couple of original touches, like the lopping off of the line midway, or the use of calligraphy on a near-abstract background of oil paint. Chua Ek Kay’s My Haunt (below), the 1991 laureate, which perhaps is a more traditional use of Chinese ink, manages to convey the serene sense of place and wistful nostalgia that his works are known for, yet comes across as simply being more dynamic than Hong’s hippie-ish pictorial platitudes and threadbare sentiments.
And the less said about stinkers like Soh Chee Hui’s Blue Balloon (1992′s winner), Kit Tan’s Endless Love (her first win from 1997) and Lim Poh Teck’s City (1990), the better.
Again, this should be stressed: these aren’t bad works per se, but to valorize them as the cream of the local crop by handing out undeserved laurels and moolah just seems like utter mockery, or ignorance — or both.
UOB Painting of the Year winners
1982 – Goh Beng Kwan, The Dune
1983 – Anthony Poon, Waves
1984 – Wee Shoo Leong, Yuen (Affinity)
1985 – Ng Keng Seng, Steps
1986 – Sandy Wong, Exhibit ‘86
1987 – Baet Yeok Kuan, Man and Environment I
1988 – Ang Yian Sann, One’s Habitat
1989 – Lim Tiong Ghee, From the Turtledove
1990 – Lim Poh Teck, City
1991 – Chua Ek Kay, My Haunt
1992 – Soh Chee Hui, Blue Balloon
1993 – Raymond Lau, Echoes of the Window (I)
1994 – Hong Zhu An, Yi-Er-San (One, Two, Three)
1995 – Tan Chin Chin, The Statue of Gods, 1995
1996 – Chen Shi Jin, Root
1997 – Kit Tan, Endless Love
1998 – Chng Chin Kang, She Loves Me But She’s Not My Mummy
1999 – Tan Kay Nguan, Trifling Matter
2000 – Fan Shao Hua, They
2001 – Erzan B Adam, It’s Hip 2 B Square
2002 – Gong Yao Min, The Impression of Singapore, Series Three
2003 – Luis Lee, Packed
2004 – Kit Tan, The World of Xi You Ji
2005 – Alvin Ong, The Window
2006 – Namiko Chan Takahashi, Charisse
2007 – Hong Sek Chern, Aspects of the City II
2008 – Joel Yuen, Anatomical Fantasies of Meat
2009 – Zhao Renhui, Space In Between #1, #6, #63
2010 – Bai Tian Yuan, What
2011 – Gong Yao Min, My Dream Land