In 1896 Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy attempted to define art. He gave an example of a boy who ran into a wolf and felt fear. The boy later recreated the intense emotions in canvas or marble. Viewers would later be teleported back in time, and feel the very same fear the boy faced.
Tolstoy summarised art in a sentence, "Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them."
Fast forward 20 years, critically acclaimed Mexican artist Frida Kahlo's work strikes a chord. The general public is well acquainted with her story. At 18, she was travelling in a bus when it ran into an accident. A steel rail pierced through Kahlo's hip, leaving her pelvis and spine fractured. She would retell her suffering in graphic paintings like The Broken Column (1944) – ones that tormented viewers as well.
Printmaker, Wong Jia Yi
121 years on, the ghost of Tolstoy's definitions lingers. Young artists seem to echo his sentiments. "I feel that art is about conveying messages, sharing the way we experience," printmaking graduate Wong Jia Yi quips.
In Wong's work, her portraits are etched on copper coins and left to oxidise over time. It stands for change. "Since copper will naturally change from shiny brown to darker brown due to oxidisation, it is like how life is constantly changing over time. I enjoyed the unpredictable outcome of how each coin turns out to be and various stages of experimentation." Wong is 21. It is perhaps a departure from adolescence into the uncertainties of adulthood that birthed an urgency in Wong to create such a tender, exploratory autobiographical work.
It then makes sense that artists like Kahlo and Wong are storytellers, and their artworks are novels. To these young artists, art is storytelling.
Painter, Kayleigh Goh
As a child, Kayleigh Goh knew there were emotions in paintings. The thought led her to major in painting. She wanted "to understand what does it mean that painting can convey emotions".
Reading Goh's work, it tells a simple tale. It's late afternoon, and the sky is clear. Gentle beams of sunlight trace the rims of a one-storeyed building, leaving trims of shadow. There's a person. He's flanked by looming concrete walls. An open door is in sight. The air is still. It's calming, but an eerie sense of suspense haunts the painting.
Goh paints with wood and cement. Wood speaks of the natural, while cement is the "familiarity of man-made protection".
"They work with each other to reach a balance," the 24-year-old Goh adds. The paintings are a retrospective of her pursuit for "appreciating beauty in aloneness". Viewers get a taste of the quietness in Goh's heart, likewise the spine-chilling trepidation of loneliness.
Sculptor, Gabrielle Tolentino
23-year-old Gabrielle Tolentino was born in the Philippines, where art was absent in his life. "I was first introduced to art when I moved to Singapore in 2008."
In the few years that followed, Tolentino invented his own language with sculptures. "I tend to lean towards surrealist and hyperrealist qualities in my work."
With silicon, fibreglass, and resin, Tolentino sculpts human bodies. Compelling stories are told through the smallest nuances – a furrowed brow, a hunched back, under eye wrinkles, and a puckered mouth.
At an ongoing exhibition, one of Tolentino's sculptures was reportedly sold on the launch day. Here's the catch. A buyer appreciates the story told. It's a real object, but with a fabricated story. Like a fiction writer, Tolentino dreamed up the character.
The previous two artists and Frida Kahlo made autobiographical art. Tolentino takes it further by conjuring fiction. It's a story, nonetheless.
In recent years, Tolentino has observed the definition of art stretching. "Now everything and anything has the potential to be considered art." It doesn't bode well for young artists trying to carve a professional artistic career. The threat to cheapen and trivialise art looms large. "Many young people have increasingly considered a career in the arts."
It also means more unqualified, unskilled, self-proclaimed artists are entering the trade. "Now I feel like there is significantly less focus on technical excellence, and more focus on concepts," Tolentino adds. When thrown off the podium, art will devalue – hinting at lesser income for these burgeoning artists.
With every expansion will come a consolidation. Sincere artists will stay and the slippery ones will leave. The process will take years. But it's no doubt a sign of robust growth for Singapore's artistic community.
All three artists' works are on display at the Gajah Gallery, 39 Keppel Road, until the 17th September 2017.
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