Unfinished & Abandoned Art – in Singaporean Artists' Studios

What is the difference between finished and unfinished? No one can tell. It's invisible to us but looms large in the artists' minds. What the artist sees as unfinished and unsatisfactory may appear beautiful to our naked eye. Here, six local artists unearthed some of their unfinished and abandoned artworks.

Tay Bak Chiang

"This was from 2000 or so, around 16 years ago. At that point in time, I came from a place wanting to explore local subjects. So I drew sunflowers, palm trees etc.. But how do I draw a sunflower? How do I treat the leaves, the lines, colours, and the composition?", the 44-year-old Chinese ink painter, Tay Bak Chiang quips. 

When Tay started on this series of sunflowers, he first studied the local sunflowers. "I went to photograph some of them, did some writings about them to clarify the concepts. Once I familiarised myself with the various states of this plant—which ones are the most beautiful—then I started conceptualising how to draw them. Do I prefer them at full bloom or on the verge of wither? It depends on what calls out. These are things that must be considered. Then I started drawing."

Felicia Yap

Tay considered the techniques he could explore and decided to paint it freehand. "This is what we call the freehand brushwork, meaning we just dip the brush in water, ink and draw. It doesn't matter if [the painting turns out] successful or unsuccessful, it will be completed in half an hour." 

He may have chucked out numerous unsuccessful freehand painting – it's only normal to him. Yet, he kept this particular piece in hope of redrawing it someday. "It's completed, I'd say it's completed. It's only that I feel unsatisfied with it. And the thing about unsatisfaction is – only I'd know. The lines are not ideal, and the colours are lacking."  

Felicia Yap

To him, the clarity of satisfaction and unsatisfaction comes with maturity. He realised it was only when he arrived at middle-age that he could remove himself from his work and review them clearly. "Satisfaction is something you'll know in an instant. Once you draw it, if you're satisfied, you'll know it immediately. With unsatisfaction, you can't deceive yourself. Two days later, or even the next morning when you wake up, you might take a look at the art. Then you'll know, "I'll have to redraw this." I feel this is something that's crystal clear." He went on to explain that artists have their own internal barometer – an intuition. There are no checklists for a satisfactory piece of artwork. 

"Even though it's been over a decade, the moment I opened it up, it still feels so familiar. At one glance, I knew what the problems were. It's been a long time, so much so that I forgot about this painting. Yet, when I took it out, it all came back to me. So long as you drew it yourself – be it good or bad – the memories will always be clear."

Alvin Ong

"I began working on [this oil on canvas] in early December but stopped on New Year’s Eve," Alvin Ong explains. This painting was about "limbs, body parts and whirls of colour" that organically progressed and "blended into one another". As he painted on and on, the story within the painting unravelled itself. Yet, Ong decided to stop working on it.

"I stopped as I felt that there was nothing more I could add, but yet there was something in the atmosphere of the piece that gave me an idea for a new work. I call these pieces “deadweight” paintings, works that act as stepping stones to somewhere... Failure is often a huge part of my process.

Alvin Ong

When that happens, Ong removes the canvas "off their stretchers and reuse them on the other side to save canvas. Other times, I just take them off the stretcher bars and roll them up. In other instances, I just bury them somewhere in the forest... Sometimes when I'm feeling nostalgic I'll try to go back and dig up the works I've buried and see what has happened in the hands of nature and time." 

These unfinished paintings are never actually lost. They're kept very much alive in Ong's conversations with his friends. "I think these are things artists often talk about when they hang out as friends, or when we visit each other's studios. What excites me is that these exchanges often illuminate our own practices and open our own attitudes towards art-making." 

Yeo Shih Yun

Yeo Shih Yun has been making art for two decades now. She dabbles in abstract expressionist art, mostly in hues of black and white. To her, a good piece of abstract painting is "about the principles of design. The painting should be interesting. It should have movement, contrast. In black and white paintings, there should maybe be something dark, grey and all the tones in betweeen. The composition should be balanced." 

Felicia Yap

The 41-year-old started on this painting in 2013. She was preparing for a solo exhibition and had to deliver two large paintings. She prepared more and sieved out the ones that weren't strong. "This work didn't fit into my series at that time. A lot of time has passed and I didn't work on it afterwards. It's been five years since but I kept it around." 

The painting was a creative collaboration between Yeo and robots – some little robot vacuum cleaners that she'd dismantled and attached brushes onto. Yeo would first paint the background, also the painting pictured above. Later, the robots were dipped into Chinese ink and allowed to roam around a canvas. The brush strokes and marks they left behind were collected, scanned and made into a silkscreen print. Yeo was planning to imprint them over her painting. But she didn't. 

She reckons the painting "has something. I can't stop looking at it. Something that is good, that's why I kept it." It will remain unfinished, seated in Yeo's studio for now. 

Andy Yang

"Work started for this piece at the end of 2016," Andy Yang quips. This painting was a "study" piece, for he had previously weaned off brushwork and wanted to reintroduce it back into his work. "Then it got serious as I started to really like where it was taking me. The plan was to work on a few variations and finally have enough pieces for a show eventually." He even came up with a working title for the series, "Deprivations". 

Yet, Yang's plans were interrupted for he was simultaneously working on another series due for an exhibition. "So I had to stop work on it to focus on the pieces for the solo show." That was merely one of the reasons for holding off this painting. "Second reason was I had a mental block... I just didn't know how to proceed further." 

Andy Yang

One year on, this painting is still hanging around his studio. He hopes in the development of unfinished artworks. "The painting just sat at a corner so I can still look at it from time to time, trying to figure out a solution to get back to work on it... All of [these] pieces have the potential to grow and be developed into finished pieces. Some of them may even assist me on the journey to come up with future ideas. Some pieces may take a bit more time than others to develop... Of course, there will be some pieces that are beyond development and may be destroyed by me in a fit of rage."

Few artists publicly talk about their unfinished artworks – even if failure is necessary. To him, "it's only human that we want to keep the development process as private as possible so we will be judged less based on it. Nobody wants to expose the flaws and corrections of a development although it's an essential phase for improvement." 

He seems to embrace this vulnerable state of creation. In his unfinished artworks, he saw in himself a curious mind, "always keen in exploring new grounds to see how far I can push myself through my art." He concludes, "Creating art was never easy in the first place."

Yeo Jian Long

By day, Yeo Jian Long works in the medical industry. "I do medical illustrations," the 35-year-old laughs. In his profession, he found the essence to his current series of artworks. "I was doing research on an assignment and realised that our skin, if you magnify it closely it resembles a landscape – like a Chinese landscape painting. I was quite intrigued by this premise. Something scientific could be related to something totally unexpected like a landscape painting. I couldn't have guessed it." 

Felicia Yap

So he abstracted the forms and drew them out in "different coloured inks and pens" on six pieces of A3 paper. The artwork never came to an end. He struggled with it for "about three months". 

"Because of the size constraints of my studio, I did these individually. Individually, I was satisfied with them. But when I put them together, the sequence didn't work – the flow. In terms of Chinese landscape painting, the flow of energy – I know it sounds cliche – is important. It's quite true. It relates to abstract painting as well. If you look at Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, there's a flow of energy. It didn't work well with this series that I was working on. So I decided to chuck it."

The state of his unfinished artwork intrigued him even more. "The term finished – unfinished might be finished. To put things simply, unfinished is a form of aesthetic. In sketches right, some things maybe be left missing. So the viewer has to compelte it in the mind. The viewer is expected to invest more in the viewing process. In that sense it requires the viewers to work." He reckons that art appreciators may even be more invested when presented with an unfinished artwork. "I think people will be happy to look at it and [may even] think that the art is finished." 

Yet, the phenomenon of deconstructed and unfinished art exhibitions cues at an ever morphing industry. "The standard of how art should be is really very, very elastic."

Felicia Yap

Pictured above, another unfinished artwork in Yeo's studio. 

Melissa Tan

"I was working on these silkscreen prints in 2012... The silkscreen prints were meant to be hand-cut and hung using nylon strings and displayed like an installation. The work was meant to be an impression of a map," Melissa Tan explains. In the same year, she stopped working on these cut-outs. 

"I found the material too thick and proved difficult to cut. It was starting to hurt my fingers and it was then that I decided to put it aside and tried other types of paper." The 29-year-old went on to "experiment with other types of paper." So she rolled up these cut-outs and tucked them away in her studio. "I like to keep them as there are times I like to refer to the colours, tones I was using from before." The unfinished artworks serve as a reference for future projects. 

Melissa Tan

On her decision to keep this piece of unfinished cut-outs, she considers, "It's hard to interpret your own actions. Maybe I don't like throwing pieces away as I have a hoarder mentality and I'm sentimental towards certain things." 

Melissa Tan

"My prints are pretty large and they do take a fair bit of time to make as well, so I don't like throwing them away. I somehow know or hope that I might return to them one day and perhaps find a solution." Tan sees potential in her unfinished artworks, "It may take time but I will feel the satisfaction."