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Decoding Singaporean Artist Ruben Pang’s Paintings

By Kames Narayanan

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On a somber, rainy Tuesday afternoon, I found myself amongst a cluster of austere industrial buildings at the western tip of the city in search of Singapore artist Ruben Pang’s studio. Located in a maze of heavy lifting machinery and mechanic workshops, Pang’s creative space, and occasional home for the night, sits inconspicuously behind a grey door — one that’s no different from the other doors of the rest of the units in the building. 

I pushed the door open — just a crack — half uncertain whether I had arrived at the correct location, and the other half in anticipation of meeting one of the country’s most promising talents. A tall, gangly figure with a warm inviting smile on his face quietly welcomed me. The 27-year-old, who, to date has clocked in four art residences across the globe (Israel, Switzerland, Italy and Australia) and sold-out solo exhibitions, displayed no airs and graces. “I don’t hold on to things like that. I am thankful for things but I don’t look at my own accomplishments that much. Or rather, I don’t state what they are to myself too clearly,” he shares.

Speaking calmly, with traces of an anxiety-filled past suppressed with drags on a cigarette he holds in hand throughout the interview, he says with a laugh, “I used to be so nervous all the time before, I don’t even know why. I’m much better now. Nicotine helps.”

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Eloquent in his words yet calculated with his thoughts, there is a premeditated restraint in the way Pang articulates. 

His paintings, on the other hand, speak an entirely different language. An abstract medley of colours in fluid strokes come together on large-scale aluminium composite panels — his preferred medium to work on — in adherence to what Pang describes as a “feeling”. 

“Although I don’t necessarily know if I am feeling the paint or myself,” he continues. “I’m an artist who taps on something that is very internal so I don’t use foreign subject matters to trigger my work or as its focal point.” 

The genesis of his creative process is as fascinating as the way his swirls of paint coalesce to form a transient reality. For Pang, it often takes place when he slips into a slumber where he is in a state of complete loss of control. “Do you notice how your dreams are colour graded?” he asks. “My dreams are very realistic; they don’t look like (my paintings) at all. But what dreams tend to have is this colour grading. Well, at least for me,” he explains. 

“Films like ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ is tinged in a certain light and for me, the light that I remember is the blue light that comes in from the windows,” he says. “If you watch a David Lynch film or ‘Natural Born Killers’, there is this room that is flooded with a neon green light and I think of that colour grading as a kind of glue or wool over your eyes. They tinge everything in this colour and you believe that it is reality,” he adds. 

“I think that is why a lot of glazing happens in my paintings. I am not really looking for reality but an experience of (it). The whole point of escapism is to pretend that it is your reality. I just feel the need to create another space,” says Pang. 

This other space that he speaks of is a multi-dimensional universe, that reveals itself in layers upon close observation. When I first laid my eyes on one of the four panels (three of which were in the midst of being completed as a triptych for an exhibition in Italy) that were propped up at the front of the studio, the image that initially registered was Pang’s signature hodgepodge of colours. But as I stepped closer, traces of elusive floating figures — another one of Pang’s signatures — came to view. These, he later explains, are on the surface, manifestations of his artistic style.

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“Reading it from an aesthetic point of view, it is a way I play with weight distribution. It’s a way to be dynamic and dramatise to send a message across. There is also a large calligraphic muscular stroke that I apply whether it is a small or large figure,” Pang explains.

And delving deeper, a rebellion against preconceived societal norms.

“If I were to pseudo psychoanalyse myself as a person, I was always a law-abiding citizen and I listened to my family. I have always negotiated the demands of a society, obligingly. For the most part, you can count me as a people pleaser and I think what happens is that emotionally, there is a knee jerk reaction,” he adds.

Pang, is however, by no means a rebel without a cause. His artistic ambitions are grounded by a strong business acumen; he finds a balance be- tween what he describes as being “an artist in the real world” and “creating his own reality”. 

“In Singapore and anywhere else, in general, it is hard to be an artist. When I first started out, I didn’t think the stress of having overhead(s) was something I wanted to deal with. I began painting at the (HDB) void deck with a trolley (in tow). My living and bedroom became my studio and I learnt how to paint in smaller spaces. When you start off doing your art, it is a business unfortunately,” says Pang.

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For a young artist, Pang’s knowledge of the local art scene surpasses his age. Taking a long pause before offering any advice to artist look- ing to break into the art scene, Pang manages, “Oh man, that’s a lot of responsibility. In general, just put in the time to do the work. Then, see if it’s really for you. Go in with your eyes open and be prepared.” 

He shares other insightful thoughts throughout our exchange. “I apply these two things in general in my life: Always remember you are nothing and question everything,” he shares. 

As the interview draws to an end, Pang coyly reveals that he is also part of a rock band — a love he discovered when he was in school. Deflecting further questions, “When (the band and I) have something to show, we’ll show it. I am not trying to create an anticipation,” he says. 

While talking about his artworks sets him in a pensive frame of mind, the mention of music brought a wide-eyed enthusiasm and an unexpected gusto. Pang, like the works of art he produces, is an enigma who conceals multiple facets of his personality.