For more than 10 years, Ruben Pang (@rubenpang) has been lucky to never have had to put down his paintbrush. Pang grew up in a family of creatives: His father trained under renowned artists like sculptor and painter Tan Teng Kee and Singapore’s pioneering potter, Iskandar Jalil; while his mother taught fashion merchandising in Temasek Polytechnic. His upbringing has meant that unlike other artists who struggle with the decision of whether to pursue their passion, Pang has never doubted his future as an artist.
Photograph by Gregory Woo, styling by Michelle Kok
Singaporean painter, Ruben Pang.
The creative community is often characterised by the clichéd image of tortured, starving artists — compounded by the lack of social acceptance of art as a career. Yet Pang recalls his younger self at 16 years old, not having to worry about paint splattered on the ceiling or spilled on the floor, and “my parents actually being interested in the noisy music and violent art I was doing.” His upbringing gave him the emotional stability and fortitude he never knew he needed to pursue his craft, which has, in a way, built ingrained values that inform the way he sees things today.
A quick search of “Ruben Pang” on the internet comes attached with a barrage of jarring, abstract images — a series titled “Pre-Heaven” that was presented as a solo exhibition early this year during Singapore Art Week, and visually poignant works like “Swallow Shadow,” amongst others. “If you were to ask me about my process or where my inspirations come from; well, [I’d say] it’s a part of [my] life already,” he says. “[I] almost just show up and start watering the plants.”
Pang painting in his studio.
Since Pang graduated from Lasalle College of the Arts in 2010, he has not stopped churning out artworks. Reflecting on the process of putting paint to canvas (or aluminium in his case), Pang says that each of his works is always built on the momentum from the last painting, saying, “Just walk up to the painting and you will already know; if you’re not such an inhibited person, there are very few reasons not to just try any idea.” From his father and the other towering figures in his life (like Iskandar who he affectionally calls “uncle Iskandar”), Pang has learnt to listen to instinct over intellect. “The one thing they have in common is that they both leave dirt in the work. ‘Don’t fix everything. [Art] shouldn’t be a labour’ is what my father used to tell me,” he says.
Yet, Pang has also suffered the inevitable, where creativity and its associated pride and pleasure fall by the wayside as his career progresses — the formula of working in any industry includes many factors that take away the initial joy of creating. Having internalised that, Pang has been able to separate negativity from his self-worth. “My responsibility is to make sure that I’m enjoying myself,” he says. “I think if you’re lucky enough to be an artist, then your responsibility is to ensure that you exercise your freedom.”
As an artist, it is important to respect your own values. How do you treat yourself when you’re failing? For Pang, it is having an encouraging monologue within himself, and articulating that in his brush strokes. During his time in an art institute, Pang was fortunate to have met his own mentor the same way his father found his — Ian Woo, an artist and musician, helped him address some of his personal blind spots, and taught him to be vulnerable in his art but discerning as an artist. In a world that insists “artist equals content,” it can be difficult to look at art beyond mere transactional objects. Coupled with the insecurity projected onto emerging artists by a less than nurturing environment, Pang acknowledges that creatives who have not developed a sense of resilience could often feel that they have no inherent value.
“I would refrain from blaming Singapore for any particular thing,” he says. The idea is for artists to quit being cynics themselves. “For sure, this place could afford to regard creativity as something a little more than a tourist attraction. Or perhaps the client base [in Singapore] is too small,” he muses. But Pang also recognises the privilege of being a Singaporean — the safety net of housing and business opportunities that exist for anyone willing to reclaim control of their own power.
“There will always be a lot of people trying to remind you that you’re just ‘meat’ with the idea of ‘I can break or break this for you’.” As an artist, success then is about maintaining the integrity of the art and to continue being generous on one’s own terms. He says, “For me, if you hold on to your dignity and kindness despite all of that — that’s ridiculously successful.”
Photograph by Gregory Woo
Styling by Michelle Kok
Hair by Christvian Goh (ARX Salon)
Makeup by Wee Ming using Shu Uemura
Clothing: COS jacket, S$175. Subject’s own hoodie.
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