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Defenders Of The Lost Arts: 6 Singapore Artists On The Beauty Of Kicking It Old School

From a whimsical sculptor who works with found objects to a visual artist redefining embroidery art, these six Singapore contemporary artists working with "old-school" mediums reflect on the beauty of going analogue. Keng Yang Shuen reports.

Yanyun Chen

Artist Profile Photo Courtesy of Singapore Art Museum

Charcoal tends to be messy to work with and is usually used as a precursor to other mediums such as paint. Not for this 32-year-old visual artist/Yale-NUS lecturer, who sees it as “an end in itself; not a sketch”. What she does with it is astounding: monochromatic depictions of flowers and nudity so startlingly lifelike, there’s a photographic quality to them. Her series of melancholic blooms — drawn as they withered across days — was what first got her into the spotlight about four years ago. These days though, it’s her dynamic depictions of the human form that’s getting her accolades, including — the latest — a finalist title in 2018’s President’s Young Talents (PYT) programme (the winner was unannounced at press time). The ones in her deeply personal PYT show, The Scars That Write Us, explore the effects of scars on people; each taking more than a week to realise. Come April, expect an extension of it. Of her favourite medium, she says: “The textures (and) three-dimensionality of charcoal can’t be achieved with printing, where everything is glossy… The imperfections and changes in materials that can be controlled through craft and by hand are very special.”

Up next, a follow-up to The Scars That Write Us, scheduled for April.

Ashley Yeo

The first local artist selected as a finalist for Loewe’s annual Craft Prize last year, Yeo is known for her intricate, palm-sized paper sculptures that are quite literally a labour of love. Arbitrary Metrics II — her entry for the Spanish fashion label’s global competition to discover a new gen of artisans who create objects by hand — features the 28-year-old’s signature gossamer latticework. A similar piece, she says, can take up to 110 hours to hand-cut, and a tear means having to start all over. It’s a delicate process that celebrates the notion of slowness, with her describing the work as a “reaction (against) the mass media that we are constantly exposed to; being bombarded by visual information and increasing violence.” This passion for creativity born of a quieter space and time (no surprise that she’s a fan of Hayao Miyazaki’s hand-drawn animated films) manifests similarly in her dreamy drawings that tend to utilise “old-school” tools such as watercolour paint and graphite.

To see her next series of paper sculptures, head to the Mizuma Gallery at Gillman Barracks in April.

Crystal Lee

Don’t be surprised to see more of Lee’s accessories and art label Project Coal in the upcoming months, what with tie-dye being huge on the Spring/Summer 2019 runways. Far from being trend-driven, the 25-year-old has been approaching the dyeing of fabrics as an art form since 2014 — though this, she says, is her first interview with a local magazine (the practice just hasn’t been that big here, she points out).

Working with dyes derived from the likes of plants, fruits and even insects — some so exotic, they have to be imported from India, the US and UK — she soaks linen and cotton in the pigments for anything between one hour and an entire night. Controlling the whole process by hand, and with her fine arts-trained eye for the desired shade and intensity, she then transforms the fabrics into scarves, totes and wall hangings — each limited to about 20 pieces — with a poetic, wabi-sabi appeal. There’s just something “authentic and honest” about working with natural dyes in such a manner, she says. “(And honesty is) the most genuine thing you can do through your art.”

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