Game Changers

Art that speaks to the heart

Art does not need to be 'cheem', says self-taught painter Yeo Tze Yang, whose evocative works often depict ordinary objects and everyday life

Yeo Tze Yang with two of his recent works, Smashed Glass Door (in foreground) and Opening Soon, both showing door fronts that are usually unnoticed in daily life. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY
Yeo Tze Yang with two of his recent works, Smashed Glass Door (in foreground) and Opening Soon, both showing door fronts that are usually unnoticed in daily life. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

Businessman James Toh recently shelled out a significant five-figure sum for a head-turning painting he saw at an exhibition titled A Lack Of Significance at an Orchard Road gallery.

Measuring 1.8m by 4.6m, the piece - The Fruits And Vegetables Shop - spans six panels and is a vivid depiction of a wet market in Singapore.

The work is one of 25 by emerging artist Yeo Tze Yang.

Mr Toh, 25, says: "I like Tze Yang's works because they are very authentic. He paints subjects that are close to home, close to the heart."

Indeed, that aptly sums up the ethos of the 25-year-old painter.

Yeo says his art springs from the heart and focuses on the ordinary and the everyday.

"You don't need to tax your brains to understand it," says Yeo, whose parents used to work in the design and creative industries and whose elder sister is an art teacher.

"Other kids were playing computer games, but I learnt how to use Photoshop when I was six because of my father," he says.

He attended Nanyang Primary, Victoria School, National Junior College and the National University of Singapore (NUS), where he was a South-east Asian Studies major - but had been convinced since his teens that art was his calling.

Art colleges did not figure in his game plan; he just wanted to paint and did not want to be distracted by unnecessary modules he would be forced to attend.

"I just needed the time and space to produce work."

He did appreciate completing his degree in NUS, however. It has, he says, made him a more informed painter and helped him to better appreciate home and humanity.

During his national service, he started exhibiting and selling his paintings at cafes and the Affordable Art Fair. Since then, his works have been shown at three solo exhibitions and about 10 group ones. He also clinched second prize with an evocative study of his grandmother's kitchen at the UOB Painting of the Year in 2016.

He is thankful his parents have been supportive.

"I've never pompously declared: 'I am going to be an artist.' I just get on with work, and with every small triumph along the way, my parents get more convinced of this life decision of mine."

You decided very early on that you wanted to make a living as an artist. What made you so sure?

I don't think there was a specific moment of certainty. Growing up, the idea of being an artist in Singapore often falls into the common tropes of the starving artist or the person who gives up along the way, sells out and goes on to do something else.

Through the years, I've also seen older people around me who did not pursue the arts at an earlier age and regret their decision. This was perhaps the motivation for me to at least give it a shot right after I was finished with junior college.

There was no harm in doing so, and besides, I knew I wouldn't do anything else better.

Was there any resistance from your parents and derision from naysayers?

No Singaporean parent wants their child to become an artist. There's nothing but worry when a young person wants to do something often deemed as impractical.

But thankfully, there has never been much resistance from my parents. They give their support and encouragement, not through words but through small acts like helping me with deliveries or being there at my openings. I can't ask for anything more.

Singaporeans aren't exactly known for being dreamers, and derision is par for the course when you're an artist. It's hardly past tense, it still happens, and I do understand where most people are coming from, so I let the comments slide.

What advice would you give to people thinking of making art their career?

Know deep down that this is what you want to do for life. You don't need to tell anyone. Just go do the work.

If, like me, you're not born with means, it means living very prudently. Time and money that could have been spent on leisure should be spent on making work. If you have second thoughts and doubts, then this life and career isn't for you.

You seem to have avoided the esoteric installations and befuddling concepts and concentrated on evoking emotions. What do you want to say with your art?

The foundations of my work are rebellious in a very understated way. If contemporary art is a lot about making stuff most people cannot understand, or conjuring spectacles for social media, then I want to do the opposite.

I want to make art that is simple and seemingly underwhelming, that doesn't condescend, that one doesn't need to be very 'cheem' (deep) to understand, and instead only requires the heart to approach.

I never really know what I want to say exactly with my art. I trust only that it will say something eventually, and I always figure out the reasons in hindsight. You can say it's a very visceral approach to art-making.

You're only 25 but have done well, with a few exhibitions under your belt and your works selling well. Are you strategic about your art career?

Not belonging to any cliques in the art world, I had to be a little more thick-skinned in how I went about my career.

The art-making is only one aspect. There's a lot more involved if one wants to make art a career, like networking, marketing and planning.

I know people who feel awkward having to do these things, but I think it's part and parcel of making art a career. It's not selling your soul, it's just part of making a living.

There's also been a lot of luck involved and the generosity of people I've met along the way who have given me advice and opportunities.

Do you feel any pressure to be original and unique?

Not really. It's never been about following trends or trying to compete with other artworks. I am confident in the way I work. Sure, I make bad paintings sometimes, but I think they are specifically my own bad paintings and no one else's.

Do you think your art contributes to society?

Yes and no. In many ways, the art world tends to be an insular one, with paintings becoming commercialised commodities. My paintings are no exception. As a result, sometimes it may seem like my art serves only this very niche and wealthy group of the art world.

Yet, I've also witnessed moments when my art did transgress the borders of this exclusive club. This was especially so when my painting Ah Ma's Kitchen won the silver prize in the UOB Painting of the Year award in 2016. Many saw their own lives in the painting and could relate to what was depicted.

I consider it an achievement when my work moves someone who doesn't usually look at art. So I try my best to invite as many people as possible to my exhibitions, especially those not from the arts; that's one way to open up the often elitist club of the arts to everyone, and in some ways, contribute to society.

How do you hope to break new ground in what you do?

By never feeling too comfortable with anything I do. I think that has been one of the ways I keep moving forward with work and life.

If I find things getting formulaic and predictable, I begin to feel anxious and find myself wanting to do new things. My university education has definitely and unconsciously left its imprint on my art. It's opened my eyes to my place in society and in the world.

I hope my art continues to grow and change. I'm doing a residency in Kuala Lumpur next month, and hope to participate in several others around the region and the world in the coming years. Who knows how my art will change in the days and years to come?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 06, 2019, with the headline 'Art that speaks to the heart'. Print Edition | Subscribe