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Story | Neo Huiyuan, Arts Editor and Yip Jie Ying, Features Editor
Photo | Neo Huiyuan and Ruben Pang
“Why would you buy a painting of someone pulling his head off?” was the question Ruben Pang posed to one of the clients who bought his painting.
On Sept. 5, on the invitation of Professor Chen Yanyun and Visual Arts Society (VAS), Mr. Pang came to Yale-NUS College for a sharing session. Salient themes in the session included the guiding philosophy behind Mr. Pang’s paintings, his crea
tive process and explorations of self-awareness.
If emotions had forms and shapes, it would look like a Ruben Pang painting. Reminiscent of the themes in Francis Bacon’s works, Mr. Pang’s paintings seek to depict and reflect his psyche. Using acrylic alkyd, Mr. Pang paints in expansive yet controlled luminous strokes pulled in all directions, but always anchored on the central figure in the portrait. The importance of the portraiture of the figure was revealed in Mr. Pang’s explanation that, “the figure as a structure … holds down a certain sense of chaos.” Through the contours of the strokes and the shadows created by the luminous lines, Mr. Pang represents his psyche as a figure convexed and exposed to the world.
Mr. Pang explored introspective painting, but of the sort that was primal and carnal. Showing the audience a Google image of Francis Bacon’s “Crucifixion”, Mr. Pang explained that he was interested in “wonderful horror stories.” These were fractured fairytales with a twist to the characters’ personalities, making them more callous and with a personality that would put them on the fringes of society. Perhaps another parallel manifestation of his fixation on the primal is his frequent choice of the portrait format. A friend of Mr. Pang noted that this might be due to his desire to appeal to “predatorial” viewers with a focused “terminator” vision. There is a lot of power play in his paintings, Mr. Pang commented.
As an artist, Mr. Pang is also interdisciplinary. He sees the commonalities underlying the different art forms of music, film and art and elevates his works by drawing inspiration across the disciplines. Adam Lau ’19 observed that “we are at a time where it’s necessary to return to an interdisciplinary approach” and where “specialization is not enough.” Using film stills from Natural Born Killers and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Mr. Pang enthusiastically explained that those scenes were visualizations of what went on in his head.
On being a good artist, Mr. Pang also firmly opined that he did not want to be a craftsman. When pressed on what he meant by “craftsman”, Mr. Pang elaborated that they were artists who focused narrowly on methods and techniques in working on their craft. Lim Shi Cheng ’19 agreed that a common trap for art schools was the belief that the further one pushed his/her techniques, the better he/she becomes. Contrastingly, Mr. Pang exemplified the philosophy that pushing one’s ideas instead of techniques is the key to being a great artist.
The magic of Mr. Pang can also be attributed to the unique medium which he uses. While canvas comes to mind for most artists, Mr. Pang’s paintings are inextricably associated with aluminium, on which he paints. Mr. Pang explained that while the first strokes always looked good on canvas regardless of quality, initial strokes usually looked horrible on aluminium. Thus, the moment when the aesthetics of the drawing coincides with the physical pleasure of painting, is the moment where his creation ends.
A consistent theme throughout the session was the exploration of identity and self-awareness. When asked by Keziah Quek ’17 where he sees himself in the Singapore canon, Mr. Pang replied that he saw himself simply “as an artist”. Citing his father as an important influence on his life, he said that his father had taught him not to posture. Mr. Pang lived by the advice of not positioning himself low; if you visualize yourself with the masters, then dare to dream of that. Several times throughout the session, Mr. Pang mentioned that he was satisfied with being a ‘fanboy’ artist of Francis Bacon and didn’t care how he fit into the wider Singapore canon.
This self-awareness resonated with several Yale-NUS students. Lim agreed with Mr. Pang that “to be a great artist, you have to put yourself among the elite”. Lim noted that comparison among peers limits an artist’s potential as he or she becomes fixated with achieving certain arbitrary standards of art, while placing oneself among the greats helps to stretch one’s potential. Several interviewees also identified with Mr. Pang’s artistic spontaneity, where “in his process he doesn’t really know what he’s painting and he [figures] that out in retrospect,” said Julianne Thomson ’18. Similarly, Lim saw this as an inspiration and a learning point for herself.
With more young artists breaking into the arts scene in Singapore, Mr. Pang’s success is not an anomaly, Quek noted. Citing examples of local art galleries such as Chan Hampe Galleries, Yeo Workshop and FOST Gallery, she attributed this positive trend to “the help of good local galleries that are interested in fostering, mentoring and investing in these artists”, coupled with an increasing number of people who are “starting to really look into the value of art.” Similarly, Lau affirmed that “the arts scene is definitely growing in Singapore” and that the country “has a super bright future” here. Evidently, the local arts scene is definitely something to keep our eyes on as more young artists like Ruben Pang start to carve out not only a name for themselves, but also for Singapore.
After the session, it wasn’t difficult to see the beauty of Mr. Pang’s paintings. If I was Mr. Pang’s client, I would want to buy a painting of someone pulling his head off for its honest depiction of the raw imperfections of humanity in all its glory.