ARTiculation: A Conversation with Jane Lee

I started Open Contours because I believe that a healthy arts scene requires cultural dialogue. Singaporeans have an incredible energy for cultural consumption. After all, that’s what Singaporeans do, isn’t it? Consume. At times indiscriminately. But a vibrant arts scene also requires a lively, dynamic culture of conversation, or contemporary art would lose the self-reflexive awareness and cultural-specific criticality that are its most valuable qualities to any society.

And what better way to start a dialogue by hearing from the artists themselves? And thus, here’s our very first artist interview. We have the great honour of hearing from painter Jane Lee, whose major solo exhibition is running at Osage Singapore until 8 November 2009. Do read a review of the exhibition that was posted here some time ago.

Rui An: Most of your paintings possess a set of aesthetics similar to that of gestural painting. But of course we know that the distinction is that the process behind each painting of yours is much more painstaking and labourious. Is the final product is the result of a more spontaneous, experimental approach or one that is more calculated? Did you have an impression of how the final work would look when you first embarked on each painting?

Jane: I don’t plan the final outcome of my paintings. Rather, I allow the process to lead me, picking up interesting things—spontaneous, chance marks—that happen along the way. Marks and textures that occur unintentionally are more interesting.

As for colour, my choices usually depend on the mood of the day. While I work, my mood may change, affecting the colour, such that a painting that began as bright red, for example, could evolve into dark red. Also, I sometimes discard the use of a tool that I initially decide upon. My artistic process is about allowing things to happen, allowing the materials, the paint, to speak.

Rui An: You have cited Robert Ryman among some of your influences and he is usually identified as a painter. Are there also the works of other artists outside the official domain of painting that have also influenced your work, considering the sculptural and installation-like nature of your works? Do you also draw inspiration from outside the institution of art?

Denim III (2009), Oil on epoxy canvas

Denim III (2009), Oil on epoxy canvas (Image courtesy of Osage Gallery)

Jane: Ryman doesn’t rush into how the final image ought to be. Rather, he slows down the painting process, breaking down the individual elements of a painting. This approach to painting is what inspires me. I’m similarly unconcerned about final product, and my work is also about slowing down the painting process and breaking down the components and stages to the construction of a painting. At the same time, like Ryman, I seek to bring the white wall—a site often taken for granted in an exhibition—to the forefront of the viewer’s attention, as seen in my Denim III and Bond II paintings.

Although I share Ryman’s starting point and follow his basic principles, I’m not aiming for mimicry in the final visual impact. Whereas Ryman simply dissects painting, I take each individual element and push beyond their usual boundaries, investigating into their full range of possibilities. Whilst Ryman purely examines paint and the brush, I look to materials outside of fine art. Whenever I see paint, I ask if the consistency of the paint can be changed with the addition of other, sometimes unconventional, materials.

One of my other influences is the idea of spiritual surrender to natural forces. This means respect for materials and medium, as demonstrated in allowing them to come to their own, permitting them to speak in such a way that they come to life. This is one quality that many have noted about my paintings. Unlike other painters who compel materials to tell a/their story, I allow materials to just be.

Rui An: I noticed that the colour red features quite prominently in some of your works. Why the choice of such a strident colour? And some of your works, particularly Status, reminds me of bodily fluids. I was just wondering if your works have anything to do with the bodily or even the sexual?

Jane: My choice of bold, strong, cheerful and vibrant colours is a reflection of my current prevailing emotional state. I’m at the stage of my life where I’m feeling particularly blessed. For me now, there is an overriding feeling of abundance, a sense of celebration, and even courage. This comes forth in the vibrancy of the colours of my recent paintings. It all goes back to my earlier point about colour as reflection of my moods.

Although there is no sin in relating spirituality (joy in being) to sexuality (pleasure in the physical body), I must tell you that I’m not consciously making sexuality a feature of my works. Nonetheless, my subconscious moods do come into play.

Rui An: Some of your works involve cutting up the canvas into thin strips, almost constituting a sort of violence to the canvas. Some people may even think that they are motivated by a kind of vehement, anti-art streak. What is your opinion on this?

Detail of Turned Out (2009), Acrylic paint on canvas

Detail of Turned Out (2009), Acrylic paint on canvas (Image courtesy of Osage Singapore)

Jane: If you look carefully at Turned Out, for example, you will see that the edges of the canvas strips are neatly cut, rather than violently torn off. Also, the canvas strip is gently rolled into a painting. It is certainly not my intention to bring violence into the picture. Contrary to what some may think, I’m actually motivated by everyday, non-violent gestures, such as folding, turning, cutting, pasting, bending, pushing and pulling. I test possibilities of painting by taking advantage of advanced technology available in our time, and I do so in a reinforcing rather than aggressive way.

Rui An: I understand that you consider yourself to be still in the early stage of your development in painting. What are your plans for the future? Do you think that you have found your signature style yet?

Jane: I plan to travel abroad next year. But there are no concrete plans yet. As for my practice, I’m at the moment still very much concerned about developing my painting; I’m still growing as an artist. I will just let things happen, and wait to see how it will all develop. The unknown future—of my paintings and of life in general—keeps me excited.

Jane Lee is an event of the Singapore Art Show 2009 and is currently on display at Osage Singapore from 26 September to 8 November 2009. Admission is free. Special thanks to Osage Singapore for the contact.

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