Drawing on literature

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 11, 2014

Conceptual artist Heman Chong, better known for his installation works, is equally at ease with brushes, paints and canvases.

It was a journey that started in 2009, when he embarked on a project, Cover (Versions), for which he painted imagined book covers, mostly of books he had not read but hoped to read.

He has completed 358 paintings, each of which is in a standard 46cm x 61cm format. "I wanted a size that could stand alone as a painting. Not too large, not too small," he says of the pieces which cost $5,000 each.

Sixty-seven of the works are on display in his solo show, Of Indeterminate Time Or Occurrence, a title which he tells Life! questions elements of imagined boundaries in life and art, as well as the boundaries between imagination and reality.

He had "very little anxiety" about not being a formally trained painter. In fact, he says it helped as he did not feel "limited" or "constrained" by any particular style or definition of painting.

Interestingly, he appears in complete control of his palette and plays easily with styles.

Some of the canvases are plain with a dash of colour and lines, while others are playful. Still others are layered with fluid brush strokes.

Gone is his grey phase, which was seen when he turned the third floor of the Hermes boutique in Liat Towers into a dark space in 2008. And during the Singapore Biennale 2008, he presented the cast aluminium installation, One Hundred Years Of Solitude, which only had text spelt out in black on a white background.

Visitors to Chong's new show who had seen those works will in fact be surprised by the splash of colour and his particular fascination with red, which can be seen in many of his recent canvases.

The artist, who is in his late 30s, admits he "likes red a lot".

"It is a very weird colour. It is very transparent and it lends itself to many possibilities and elements of layering on a canvas. This is exactly what my paintings are about - layering, exploring the complexities of the post-Internet, multiple- window-format generation, where we click on one browser link and end up in another space that can sometimes be completely unrelated."

All the works were created in a dimly lit studio space "a lot like Dutch painter Vermeer, who painted in a near dark space not allowing the light to distract".

Chong, who got his master's in communication, art & design from The Royal College of Art in London, is known for his many projects that imagine a future though a multiplicity of texts, objects and images.

His work has travelled internationally and has been part of the Gwangju Biennale this year and the Asia Pacific Triennal (2012). He also represented Singapore in the 2003 Venice Biennale.

The Malaysia-born Singapore-based artist sees his recent paintings as an exploration of many of his earlier themes of finding "connections between language, design, art, colour".

He calls it his way of making sense of "text in the Internet universe".

So as you read the titles on the paintings, such as Wittgenstein's Mistress Of Fatelessness, you are compelled to reflect on many of the themes driving literature. These range from complex parables of art and life to the moral bankruptcy of contemporary culture, buried secrets or even a disintegrating marriage. It compels you to think by drawing on literature, titles and Chong's artistic interpretation of those titles.

As he says: "For me, painting itself is about the language of painting. Through this body of work, I am literally examining the very language of painting."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 11, 2014

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