Interview: Artist Jane Lee
Jane Lee is all about embracing life and all the spontaneous and unexpected things that happen along the way.
Singapore artist Jane Lee is known for her innovative work in paintings. She continuously turns the traditional medium on its head, exploring new possibilities in presenting paintings as works of art unrestricted by the confines of the canvas.
For her recently completed residency at Singapore Tyler Print Institute (STPI), Jane took a break from painting in favor of experimenting with other media, and has created a new body of work that will surprise and delight audiences familiar with her past works.
Art Republik sits down with Jane to find out more about her love for painting, the evolution of her work over the years, and her show, ‘Freely Freely’ at STPI, which will ran during Singapore Art Week earlier this year.
How has your work evolved over the years? What changes your work from piece to piece?
I had no idea I would become a full-time artist; I had wanted to become a fashion designer. So anyway, I started with painting. The idea of painting is that it is a two-dimensional object on the wall but I gradually saw my painting as installations. For me, the wall that the painting is mounted on is part of the work because whatever is around the painting interacts with it.
What makes painting such a compelling medium to work in?
I like color, and I like the feel of playing with paint. Even the smell of paint appeals to me. About 10 years ago, when I became serious about painting, I started to question what the essence of painting was. I asked myself if there were other ways to make paintings, and looked at the traditional process and techniques that went into the making of a painting. That is how I began to play with the medium.
Could you walk us through the process of creating an artwork, from the concept to the execution?
I am very much a hands-on person. When I first started painting the traditional way, I planned a lot and would sit down and create compositions for my works. This all changed in 1999, when I went to London to find out more about contemporary art. I attended a workshop where the lecturer threw paint on paper on the floor and instructed the class to just play. That was an eye-opener for me. And that became what I wanted to do. I had come to realize that by the time I planned everything, there would really be no life in the work. I began to go more with my instincts, and to play.
How do you know when an artwork is completed?
I suppose an artwork can never really be finished. If a work speaks to me, it is done. It is more emotional than intellectual. I talk to my painting a lot. It is an interactive process. Paintings are in a way alive even though they do not talk. They have certain tendencies. There is some kind of negotiation going on between the artist and the work in the process of making art.
How do you go about choosing the tools you use to make your artworks?
Traditionally, paintings are made using brushes, and would more often than not tell a story. I find tools from my daily life, such as kitchen utensils, to make my art.
Could you walk us through the process of making an artwork?
Well, in the morning, when I get to my studio, I might be feeling pretty happy and want to use bright red, but as the day progresses, and perhaps I am listening to songs, then my mood may change, and then my painting may turn out a little dark. I do not like to force anything to happen. In a way, the development of a work depends on how I feel on a particular day.
How long does it take you to complete an artwork?
For big works, it can take six months to a year. Sometimes, I work on a piece and then halfway through, there is no energy flow, and so I would put it aside for the time being and return to it at a later date.
Do you discard any works?
How do you decide what to keep?
You just know.
Is the process of making your artwork more important than the look of the final product?
I would say if it is out of 100%, the process counts for 80% and the final product counts for 20%.
Do you want people to be curious about the process?
Of course. It would be great to look beyond the surface and the colors. I want to make them ask more questions about painting as a medium, and about the process of making a painting.
Could you talk about your daily routine as an artist?
I start my day with yoga and meditation. That is important to keep me more in tune with myself. Then I go to my studio and I start working. How I work is dependent on the deadlines I have. If I am in a rush and have to work very intensively, say for a solo show, I would then refuse to go back to the studio afterwards for quite a long time. That said, my mind is always thinking, looking around, looking for inspiration from my daily life, whether it is from a morning walk, or in a conversation with someone.
Do you seek inspiration from going to the museum or attending other artist’s exhibitions?
In fact, I avoid seeing too much of other artists’ works. If you see too much, sometimes certain things I like will seep subconsciously into my work. Daily life is my source of inspiration, whether it is from a morning walk, or in a conversation with someone. Things I see around me, what people say – these are the small things that are my sources of inspiration.
Did you have any artists you looked up to when you first started out?
That would be Robert Ryman. What is fascinating about him is that he is not a painter by training. I think because he does not have the burden of knowing what a painter should do, he is able to come up with his refreshing works of art.
But do you think it is important to first learn the basics?
I think foundational knowledge can serve a painter well in providing technical know-how, such as with color mixing. However, once these skills are learned, it is probably only when they are dropped that something new can be created.
What comes first: the titles of your paintings or the paintings themselves? How do the titles, such as ‘Status’ (2009) which is in the permanent collection of the Singapore Art Museum or ‘100 Faces’ (2014), shown at your solo exhibition at Sundaram Tagore Gallery, Singapore work together with your paintings to communicate with the audience?
With ‘Status’, I was questioning the status of the painting. I was told by one of the curators for the Singapore Biennale 2008 that I would be the only painter exhibiting. That conversation stayed with me. I found it surprising that there were so few painters in the art scene when most artists probably started out being trained as painters. I thought then that perhaps painting as a medium was dead and there was no longer room in it to play. The artwork is an exploration of the state of painting in the regional contemporary art scene.
With ‘100 Faces’, I remember thinking that people were keen to show big paintings that were very heavy. I decided to break my work down into a 100 smaller and less heavy pieces that could be put together into a big painting. In addition, it was also a commentary on how a painting could have many faces, or that there could be many ways of creating a painting, and further that people have different characters that emerge in the company of different people.
Do you share these stories about the creation of these artworks with the general audience?
Normally, I would not share, though if people were to ask, I would be glad to. I do not want to impose too much on the viewer and to dictate what they see in the artworks.
Let us talk about your new works at STPI, which are not focused on paintings. It’s a new direction for you. Is this a conscious decision?
I had wanted to get out of painting for a while, but had found no excuse to do so. I thought this would a good chance to explore everything but painting, and to make good use of the facilities at STPI. It was good timing that I was invited at this time.
Why the title ‘Freely, Freely’?
I wanted a positive title for the show. My approach to making my art is a happy one. Being trapped and being free are two themes in the exhibition. With the ‘Coiling’ series, for instance, the process of coiling the paper can give one the sense of being trapped. The pins in the coils give a stronger visual expression of being trapped. On some of the works, there are birds sitting on the pins, which could be seen as symbols of freedom.
Aside from paper works, you also worked with acrylic in the show. How did that come to be?
The team at STPI is very open to ideas. I decided to experiment freely, and have included video and animation, as well as combined paper with other mediums, such as paper with sound and paper with acrylic.
How has the team at STPI pushed your artistic practice?
For most of my career, I have worked alone in my studio. Often, when I have these small crazy ideas, if it is me alone, it would be difficult and may take a longer time and I do not get around to working on them. Working here at STPI has gotten me out of my comfort zone. The capable team of people here helped me brainstorm and see possibilities, and my ideas could be realized in a very short time.
Do you think after this show, you will approach your practice differently?
I am a painter at heart, and there is still room to play with paint. As to what kind of painting and whether it will be similar to what I have been doing, I am not sure. What I have discovered here at STPI would certainly have some impact, but I really cannot answer at this point time what I would do. I like the idea of not knowing. If I already know, I would not do it. I want to excite and delight the viewer but in order to do that, I have to do that for myself first.
Text by Nadya Wang
This article was originally published in Art Republik.
Images courtesy of STPI