Space to let for young artists

Space to let for young artists

At the recently concluded Affordable Art Fair, works by young Singapore artists were among the hot sellers.

Utterly Art sold more than 58 artworks and reported over $100,000 in sales. Their top movers were works by local artists including contemporary pop artist Andre Tan, watercolourists Foo Kwee Horng and Aaron Gan, and street artist TR853-1.

Other young artists also did well at the fair. Local contemporary Chinese ink painter Tay Bak Chiang's six paintings priced at about $8,000 each and Xin Xiaochang's playful sculptures priced from $1,400 were also snapped up.

This healthy showing at the fair is the latest sign of a quietly growing trend in the art scene: Young artists are making saleable work that is supported and picked up by gallerists who have spotted this niche.

A decade ago, when Utterly Art opened its first gallery space in Chinatown, it was the only one dedicated to supporting young, unknown artists.

Newer players emerged in 2010. Galerie Sogan & Art at Mohamed Sultan Road and Chan Hampe Galleries at Raffles Hotel Arcade both opened that year.

These galleries stood out because they offered solo shows to young, untested artists. One of Singapore's hottest young painters Ruben Pang, for instance, was offered a solo by Chan Hampe Galleries after gallerist Benjamin Hampe met him at the Lasalle College of the Arts graduation show.

Besides these spaces, Fost gallery, which has been around since the mid-2000s and shown international artists such as British pop artist David Hockney and Pakistani artist Adeel uz Zafar, has also opened up its current space in Gillman Barracks to young Singapore artists such as Chun Kai Feng.

2902 gallery in Queen Street opened in 2008 and, besides showcasing international photographers such as award-winning Iranian photo-journalist Abbas Attar, has created platforms for local photographers such as Robert Zhao.

These gallerists scour art schools, visit graduation shows, go to exhibitions around town and find young talent through recommendations from artists, collectors, curators as well as contacts.

These days, the relationship between the gallerists and artists extends beyond just the former giving the latter space.

They are also helping to cultivate young artists by funding work and getting curators, researching residencies for them and showcasing new art at fairs that they take part in.

Artist Sarah Choo, who was introduced to gallerist Vera Wijaya of Galerie Slogan & Art by a mutual artist friend, says Ms Wijaya has been "vital in the growth of my artistic career thus far".

Ms Wijaya offered her two solos while Choo was still studying at the Nanyang Technological University. The artist-gallerist relationship they share, says Choo, goes beyond feedback and what she calls constructive criticism.

"I see Vera as a close friend. We meet up for dinner to talk about art. We have gone on trips together to Indonesia and to this year's Venice Biennale. I feel because of our close relationship, we are able to have an open dialogue when talking about my art," the 23-year-old artist adds.

Artist Robert Zhao, who currently has a solo at 2902 gallery and is part of a group show at Chan Hampe Galleries, tells a similar tale: "Without a gallery like 2902, I would not be where I am today. They have supported me financially in realising some of my bigger projects. It is nice to have such encouragement and for the gallery to take the risk with the artist."

The increased opportunities on the arts scene have also helped some young artists decide early to be full-time artists.

Artist Eugene Soh, who is showing with Chan Hampe Galleries, is one of them. The 27-year-old was a finalist at the Sony World Photography Awards held in London in April this year.

"There are many galleries as well as art fairs to show your work at. This gives artists like me room to experiment with styles and even create new artistic genres," he says.

This younger, more confident batch of artists have been trained in art schools and have more platforms as well as funding to make and show their work. They have been given state encouragement in the form of increased museum shows, awards, grants and scholarships to pursue their art.

"We could not have worked in isolation. Everything has come together nicely. I do not think there is one single factor that has led to a greater interest in works by young Singapore artists," says gallerist Mr Hampe.

Another boost is the greater corporate support available in Singapore now. Big-name brands such as BMW, Louis Vuitton, Fendi and Hermes have taken works by local artists into gallery spaces and even into their luxury stores, giving young artists more avenues and creating more awareness of Singapore-made art.

Art awards here have also become richer. The United Overseas Bank Painting Of The Year award, for example, offers generous cash prizes of US$10,000 (S$12,500) for the South-east Asian Painting category and US$25,000 for the country category. The regional Asia Pacific Breweries Foundation Signature Art Prize offers a grand prize of $45,000.

Winning such awards guarantees media coverage. It brings attention to the young artists' works and is a way to springboard into the limelight.

Another visible change in the scene is the subject matter which these emerging artists are tackling.

Curators and academics feel the first and second generations of Singapore artists were more interested in portraying life as it was. Theirs was a far simpler time and this was reflected in the themes and the subject matter of their works.

Younger artists now, however, have myriad influences which are reflected in their wide-ranging work, with themes running the gamut from personal and socio-political issues to popular culture and art history. Singapore Biennale 2013 co-curator David Chew, who has curated several museum shows at the Singapore Art Museum featuring works by young artists, says Singapore artists are expanding their horizons. "This is both in terms of the conceptualisation of their works, and also where they want to take themselves and their artistic practices," he says.

Gallerists, curators and collectors agree that there is a new-found confidence among the younger generation of artists. They are willing to experiment, take risks and work across media.

The big pull, gallerist Pwee feels, is that the new-generation of artists have strong "individual contemporary styles".

And these young voices and their styles are resonating with collectors, such as medical doctor Terence Lim, who are willing to spend on home- grown art.

Dr Lim, who is in his 30s, says that after visiting gallery and museum shows around the world, he has found young Singapore artists whose ideas and technical execution are comparable with the best that he has seen.

He says: "I am not supporting them because I am Singaporean and they are Singaporean. I am supporting them because some are truly talented and still relatively under-appreciated and thus under- priced."

For a similar quality work, he says, he will have to pay a lot more for a foreign artist.

"But it is not just about the price. I support them because I respect the quality of the work they are producing."

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