Artist Cheok Keng Lye breathes life into resin in exhibition

When Cheok Keng Lye started taking on fewer projects at his graphic design firm in 2010, the plan was to slowly fade into retirement.

"It was very unexpected. My wife and I decided to work less because age was catching up with us and we wanted a break. But here we are," the Singaporean artist tells Life! during an interview at Scotts Square shopping mall, where his works are on display.

Five years later, the 50-year-old is back at work - this time as a full-time artist, with his first solo exhibition of his fascinatingly life-like recreations of marine creatures underway in the heart of Orchard Road till Sunday.

His wife, Madam Hong Ly Ling, 52, who ran the firm with him, adds: "He's always enjoyed drawing and painting. Even when we were running our business, he would do it, but we didn't think it would become his second career."

The exhibition is the first in a series of seven events organised by boutique design and advertising agency Kinetic at its K+ curatorial space.

Other artists to be featured in the coming months include Hong Kong sculptor Johnson Tsang and local artist and illustrator Tye Sokkuan.

One of the agency's co-founders, Ms Carolyn Teo, had selected Cheok, or Keng Lye, as he prefers to be known, as "Kinetic believes in the championing of local talents".

Despite being relatively new to the art scene, his oeuvre of three-dimensional resin-and-paint artwork, which embeds faux aquatic animals in everyday receptacles, has won him fans and buyers alike.

He normally pours a layer of resin into a container and lets it harden before painting on it. This process, which can take between 10 and 45 days, is repeated till the painting is complete.

The results throw up striking juxtapositions - goldfish, shrimps and terrapins are frozen in motion within enamel bowls, plates and plastic bags, channelling kopitiam beverages and adding a distinctly local touch.

Of the 20 works originally on display which retail between $3,424 and $21,400, 10 have already been snapped up.

The priciest work sold so far is Kopi-O-ctopi, where an octopus is ensconced in a coffee cup. It was bought by a tourist for approximately $9,000.

It is also one of the first pieces that he tried out his new techniques on. To make features such as the eyes and tentacles pop, he painted them on a layer of clear gel, before layering on more resin.

In another work titled Blue Beauty, he carved a fighting fish out of a resin block before painting it, to "create a 360-degree view", he says.

"Some of these methods I discovered by accident, which can be a good thing. They're experiments that succeeded," he adds.

This can-do spirit first got him going in 2011, when a friend challenged him to emulate contemporary Japanese artist Riusuke Fukahori's resin paintings of goldfish.

He accepted the challenge and even put his own spin on it: "I use daily items around me, such as coffee cups, egg shells, even chocolate packaging. I want to give my realistic art a little tweak to make it more interesting."

In 2013, he uploaded pictures of the end products to art-sharing website DeviantArt, where they were met with rave reviews.

"I find tranquility in your resin pieces," wrote one user, while another asked half-jokingly: "Are you a wizard?"

Other websites and social media soon got wind of the works and he found his inbox flooded with more than 50 e-mail messages a day - buyer enquiries, enterview requests and queries from interested galleries.

He has also garnered over 37,000 Facebook followers, more than some local celebrities or politicians.

The newfound fame came as a drastic change for someone who made art as a hobby and gave it away for free to his family and friends.

"I remember he used to leave these things all over the house, even in the toilet," recalls Madam Hong with a laugh. "One of our friends thought it was real."

But while he is known for creating exquisite artwork, the artist dresses simply - in his nondescript black tee and cardigan, he could easily be mistaken for a casual shopper rather than an artist - and speaks plainly in perfect, Singaporean-accented English.

He also declines to be photographed: "I'm camera-shy and don't like to be in the limelight."

Being an artist has not changed his life much, however, adds the father of three daughters aged 17, 16 and three.

He works according to his own schedule from his Siglap home - he has risen at 4am to work, for instance, to keep his eldest daughter company while she studies.

"I still need to go buy groceries, cook and send my daughters to school, so I paint when I have the time to do it or when the mood strikes me," he says.