At 95, artist Lim Tze Peng is showing no signs of his age.
Meeting Life at his Telok Kurau home ahead of his exhibition opening, he insists no one should leave without drinking tea and is bright and witty throughout the hour-long interview and photoshoot.
His solo show, Impressions, which opens tonight at Ode to Art in Raffles City Shopping Centre, brings together 95 pieces from his extensive oeuvre.
Speaking in Mandarin through a translator, he tells Life: "I am very old already. I'm a little surprised that someone wants to do this exhibition for me."
He says he stopped painting five months ago. Before that, he had spent most of his time in his studio on the second floor of his semi-detached house in the East Coast area.
VIEW IT/IMPRESSIONS BY LIM TZE PENG
WHERE: Ode to Art Platform@ 4th Floor, Raffles City Convention Centre and Ode To Art Gallery, 01-36E/F Raffles City Shopping Centre, 252 North Bridge Road
WHEN: Today till Nov 30, 11am to 9pm (Sunday to Thursday), noon to 10pm (Friday and Saturday)
INFO: Call 6250-1901 or go to www.odetoart.com
In the foyer leading to the studio, there are rolled-up papers as well as old paintings, ink and calligraphy pieces. One of his recent ink works frames a wall. He is still fit enough to walk up and down the stairs.
Looking at his older works is like looking at a well-worn postcard that evokes an era of sepia tones and fading memories. One of the earliest ink paintings in the exhibition is an undated Old Singapore Scene, which he says he painted on location almost 60 years ago.
While he cannot recall the exact year, he vividly remembers how he had to be on location to paint a particular scene. This one was done in Chinatown. He says: "I wanted to capture fleeting moments that would be lost once the old buildings were demolished."
He began painting in oils in the 1950s, but switched to the Chinese- ink medium in the early 1970s, paving the way for other "Nanyang ink" painters of his generation including Hou Hsi Chin and Chen Chong Swee. These painters married local subject matter with Western composition techniques and Chinese brush strokes.
His paintings are rooted in Chinese calligraphy and he draws heavily on the energetic strokes he honed over years of practice.
Pointing to two ink on rice paper paintings, he shows how his artistic interests had changed and his calligraphy evolved over time.
For this solo, he revisits a work titled Autumn In The Mountains by Wang Wei. The early undated work is more traditional while the recent one is a fine study in abstraction.
"I wanted to see how I could go as an artist. I wanted to see how calligraphy could be abstract too. It takes many years of practice," he says when asked about the journey towards abstraction.
"You have to first understand the basics and you have to spend many years understanding the basics of art. It is not about how many paintings you create. The question that an artist has to keep asking is: Is your art any good? Self-doubt is good for an artist."
What changed for him over the years is the way he did his art. In the early years, it was all about being on the scene. In the later years, it was more about drawing upon memory.
He adds: "I think my earlier works were more modest in both scale and ambition."
But he is glad his artistic journey has been unhurried. He does not pay much attention to the news his art has been making in auction circles. At a Christie's auction in Hong Kong in 2012, he set a new record for work sold by a living Singapore artist. His Chinese ink and colour on paper work titled Singapore River Scene fetched HK$620,000 (S$101,800). This sale was significant as it was the first time a work by a living Singapore artist crossed the $100,000 mark at an international auction.
Having grown up in a kampung, Lim had started in the 1970s to capture the disappearing face of old Singapore, especially in Chinatown and at the mouth of the Singapore River. Depicting shophouses, bumboats and the buzz around the river, Singapore River Scene is considered one of his signature works and it stands out because of the keen attention to detail.
"An artist has to paint because he is passionate about painting," he says stoically. "To me, art has never been about the money. I have loved painting from the time I was a little boy."
Viewed together, the works in Impressions give a good overview of Lim's considerable output in oils and inks over the past few decades.
Ode to Art's director Jazz Chong calls it "a herculean task" to condense Lim's art, commending its "timeless vitality and an unending search for meaning".
About 60 of the 95 artworks are on sale and are priced between $7,500 and $250,000.
When asked what art means to him, Lim pauses for a few moments before saying philosophically: "Art is not craft. To me, it is something that comes from the soul. It is rooted in your own cultural influences and your life.
"To me, a life without art is like a tree without roots. I could not have lived my life without art. I would be like water without its source."