Artist Tay Bak Chiang breaks away from monochromatic paintings of rocks to colourful canvas creations

Artist Tay Bak Chiang with his painting, Azure Dragon. -- ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM
Artist Tay Bak Chiang with his painting, Azure Dragon. -- ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

Artist Tay Bak Chiang spent much of the last year dwelling in a world of rocks and stones and the experience has been both unsettling and exhilarating.

The geological forms are the subject of his new body of paintings, which see him taking bold steps away from his usual medium of ink on paper to paint in vivid colours on canvas.

The motif itself is not foreign to Tay's oeuvre. The Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts alumnus, who draws inspiration from nature and is influenced by the tradition of Chinese literati painting, has been depicting boulders in his work in recent years.

The spark for his series of paintings on stones came during a walk in the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve some years back, when he was moved by how the hulking forms in nature, though inanimate, appeared "full of life and personality".

Putting ink to paper, he painted monochromatic blocks of stone that were at times accompanied by a bird. These sparse mise-en-scenes later gave way to abstract geometric outcrops in earthy tones.

In the last year, however, he has been eagerly experimenting with the subject on canvas and in mineral-rich tones that range from brilliant blues to opalescent greens and shimmering yellows.

The result: more than 25 new works, which are on show at the gallery iPreciation. The works are priced between $7,500 and $33,800.

The progression from monochrome and earth tones to multiple hues is organic, he says, as he sought new ways of expressing the same subject. The switch to canvas was equally pragmatic.

Tay, 41, says in Mandarin: "I wanted to paint works that are larger in size, but the rice paper that I have been working with gets as wide as 1.2m only. With canvas, there is no limit as to how big my paintings can be."

The largest work in his new body of paintings on canvas measures 2m by 3m.

The move to canvas and painting in acrylic presented new hurdles.

He says: "Because the canvas is much bigger, I felt like I was wrestling with it. And because I was experimenting with a new medium and technique, I was not sure what the results would be."

Faced with a Goliath, however, he savoured the challenge.

"I had to give my all to conquer the medium and canvas, which made the process very satisfying," he says. "And the sense of uncertainty and unpredictability I felt as I made the works was invigorating."

In the new paintings, the rocks, depicted solitarily and in clusters, feature surfaces with more facets. This lays bare his skill in manipulating colour and shade to achieve subtle gradations and ink-like translucency using acrylic paint.

He also paints on the reverse of the canvas in some works because its raw quality reminds him of the texture and tone of paper.

His minimalist compositions though, are not about presenting realistic images or technical showiness. Rather, they are meant to evoke a sense of poetry and inner emotion, a nod to the values of Chinese literati painting albeit with a contemporary sensibility.

His painting, Azure Dragon, titled after a cardinal point in ancient Chinese astrology, is such an example. Made up of five rock-like formations arranged in counterpoint to one another, the painting betrays no sign of a mythical creature or a compass point. Yet the delicate balance of tension among the rocks, which holds the composition together, evokes the force and torque of a dragon's body as well as the magnetism of a lodestone.

Of his artistic adventure in the last year, he says: "It has opened up a lot more room for me to experiment with new colour combinations and effects. There is still more that I can do."

Another year of looking at rocks and stones? He is okay with that.

lijie@sph.com.sg