Woo factor

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 June, 2009, 12:00am

As an art student, Singaporean painter Ian Woo just didn't 'get' representational painting. 'I had problems transferring what I saw onto the canvas,' he says.

With mounting frustration and a niggling sense that he was not among the best in his cohort, he then experimented with colours and 'nothingness'. The resulting canvas won a prize in an art competition held by his alma mater, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, in 1990. Since then Woo hasn't looked back.

These days the 42-year-old is known as one of the most disciplined and consistent abstract impressionist painters in the island state. His artwork, commissioned by the Land Transport Authority, decorates Singapore's Harbourfront train station on the Northeast Line. And pieces from his oeuvre reside in the collections of the National Library Board of Singapore, The Mint Museum of Craft and Design in North Carolina and the Victorian Tapestry Workshop in Melbourne, to name a few.

The tall, erudite artist now lives in a modest corner terrace. In his living room are piles of apparel - stock from his wife's business - and the tell-tale detritus of two school-aged sons.

Propped against every available wall are big canvases completed in the past year. At a glance, there is something both of the orchid and the arachnid in the works. In a piece called The Magnetic Waterfall, greenish-blue strokes, reminiscent of tropical leaves, creepers or rivulets of water, dominate over neon lines and dark trellises. In another, We Have Crossed the Lake, a sprinkling of feather-like forms drape over murky, craggy shapes licked by yellow accents.

Woo's new show, which runs until June 28 at Fortune Cookie Projects' exhibition space in Tanjong Pagar Distripark, is called 'Flux Technicolour'. The exhibition's title, he says, is a reference to 'fluctuating changes in both colour and forms that affect the gravity of the paintings'. Concurrently, he is also part of a group exhibition with seven other Singapore artists at Osage Singapore dubbed 'Found and Lost'.

'An artist only makes one work and one idea. Everything is just a manifestation of that idea,' he says.

Using an analogy to explain his approach to image-making, Woo says: 'It's like the lens of a camera, looking at something, while looking inwards, and trying to project multiple angles.' Later, he brings up the idea of a kaleidoscope: of spending time looking at the paintings to allow things to open up and internal logic to appear.

The artist says his titles are like 'monologues that inform me'. And some offer interesting ways of seeing the paintings. In The Angel that Slept and Woke Up in a Time Machine, a pair of wings seem to spread and dominate the upper-half of the frame, presiding over a scene that gradually bleeds red.

Woo, who is also a lecturer at the Lasalle College of the Arts and programme leader of its faculty of fine arts' postgraduate studies, admires artists Cy Twombly, Gerhard Richter and Philip Guston.

'Dali! I loved him for a week,' he says, laughing. Having once stumbled into a British Council critic's talk on English landscape painter J.M.W. Turner in his youth, he has a soft spot for Turner and visits exhibitions of the artist's works whenever he is in Britain.

He speaks quietly of the tension between pairs of concepts that exist in his work: the artificial or synthetic versus the natural; solidity versus weightlessness; the organic versus the fractured; the digital and pixelated versus the analogue and physical. These reside in and give rise to points of pivot in his images, and if you examine these points you might find a sort of idiosyncratic narrative to follow.

The only son of an architect father and a teacher mother, Woo grew up on Singapore's sunny east coast and attended Catholic mission boys' schools St Steven's and St Patrick's. The shy child was prone to crying bouts, but also delighted in dressing up in his mother's wigs and creating superhero costumes. His initial pragmatic plan was to become a designer ('I wasn't a fantastic student. My mind was always sweeping out of the classroom'). But he discovered fine art while at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

A visit to his attic studio reveals cans of acrylic paint, stacks of paintings, old drawings and a view of the neighbouring rooftops. When asked about his artistic process, the painter replies he starts with nothing. 'Then I pick a colour.' The rest, he maintains, is intuition.

While he is also a musician, playing the bass guitar in an improvisational rock group and in his church's worship band, he never listens to music while painting. So don't try to read any piece of music into his artworks.

But he is, nevertheless, interested in how musical structures can develop visually and how his paintings can 'sound'. After all, he argues, both abstract painting and free-styling musical genres like jazz can be said to 'come from nothing'.

For all the sensationalist proclamations of the death of painting, Woo has no inclination to switch modes. Never mind that he revisited and enjoyed life drawing sessions a couple of years ago: 'I like the fact that a picture has a border and is static. I find it challenging to work within its limitations.'

Flux Technicolour, until June 20 at Tanjong Pagar Distripark. Found and Lost, until July 12 at Osage Singapore.