UOB painting win: Calls to tweak rules

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 28, 2013

The new rules for the United Overseas Bank Painting Of The Year have kicked in, but the winning work by German- born, Singapore permanent resident Stefanie Hauger, 44, has generated talk in the arts community that the rules might need to be tightened further.

Hauger, a former interior designer who became a full-time artist two years ago, snagged the South-east Asian painting prize worth US$10,000 (S$12,500) and the Singapore award of US$25,000 for her 170 by 170cm acrylic on canvas, Space Odyssey.

The painting attracted much attention at the awards ceremony on Tuesday night. Some guests looked at it for extended periods of time, others photographed it extensively and one guest was overheard saying it reminded him of British pop artist Damien Hirst's Swirl Paintings.

However, gallerists, artists, art lovers and collectors Life! spoke to had a different take.

Some questioned if the new rules for Singapore's longest-running and richest painting award worked, while others questioned the merit of the work.

The new rules for the contest's 32nd year aimed to level the field of competition so that artists of similar levels of experience can compete against one another.

Instead of the two previous categories of "youth" and "open", the competition is now divided into the "emerging artist" and "established artist" categories.

Hauger, a relatively unknown face in Singapore's vibrant visual arts circle, beat other strong regional winners in the established artist category, including prominent Indonesian painter Suroso Isur. This left some observers baffled.

Gallerist Benjamin Hampe of Chan Hampe Galleries said that while the award has made some positive moves this year with the new categorisation, "more rigorous selection criteria need to be applied to the established artist category".

"I feel that age and number of years in practice are a bit arbitrary. But peer recognition, including how other artists and arts industry professionals view the artist, and career milestones such as key exhibitions, inclusion in museum shows, awards and grants, are far more important. I think the award has some way to go to becoming a credible art award for truly established career artists," said MrHampe, 32.

Artist and curator Jason Wee felt single work competitions such as the UOB Painting Of The Year award thrive on the element of shock and surprise.

Wee, 33, said: "It is not difficult to see a single work of one artist trumping a single body of work of another. It has happened in the past at the same award. Competitions are highly dependent on the range and quality of the submissions and the panel of judges."

The competition received over 2,500 entries from Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia this year, about the same number as last year.

Singapore artist Aaron Gan said the fact that Space Odyssey trumped Suroso's more nuanced and detailed painting titled Indonesian Artist's Studio was an "indignity".

Said Gan, 34: "I understand that artworks are judged on message, creativity, composition and technique. While Space Odyssey may score highly in message and creativity, it should accordingly score equally low points for composition. The technique is nothing to write home about. You pour paint on a canvas and turn it around. That's it. You do not have to be trained to do it."

It was a point picked up by Indian classical vocalist and visual arts lover Krishnapuram Venkatachar Godha. She felt Space Odyssey was "not that impressive" to win a first prize in such a prestigious competition.

"The painting reminds me of the artworks we did in school. Essentially pour some three to four poster colours, fold the paper into half and get this effect. It looks exactly like that except for the size of the painting," said Mrs Godha, 42.

Artist and curator Alan Oei said Space Odyssey's "very centralised composition" made it "too literal" for him.

"It is like a Gravity (2013) inspired picture trying to evoke the beauty of the universe. That universe, however, is sublime and beyond our senses; this is too much the universe as we humans imagine and represent it. It feels a little Hollywood to me," said Oei, 37.

Art collector Colin Lim observed that, true to form, the award has generated controversy again this year. The rules were modified in 2011 to exclude photography and focus on painting, after photographs won the award in 2008 and 2009.

An upset win by 17-year-old Esmond Loh last year led to the new rules that let artists with similar levels of experience compete against one another.

Loh's award had marked the third time in eight years that the prize had gone to someone 18 or younger.

The judges this year were Dr Susie Lingham, director of the Singapore Art Museum; international auction house Sotheby's director for China and South-east Asia Mok Kim Chuan; and art veteran Chua Soo Bin, founder of SooBin Art International.

They were impressed with Hauger's contemporary interpretation of a mandala, a concentric circular diagram which helps focus attention during meditation.

Dr Lingham lauded the painting for its "striking vitality" and added that the work, created by pouring paint on the canvas and moving the canvas in a circular motion, pushes the boundaries of painting.

However, collector Lim, 48, had a different view.

"The new rules were supposed to make the competition a level playing field, allowing more established local artists to blossom, but it let in all manner of weeds and chaff. While I congratulate the winner, I think her work might re-ignite debate about whether painting is dead in Singapore," he said.

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This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 28, 2013

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