SG Inspiration: Alvin Ong

I’ve been told I am superbly blessed to be surrounded by Singaporeans who have taken the path less travelled (and succeeded). One of my new year resolutions was to document the stories that have gotten them to where they are, and to share their works. So we’ll start this series off with an interview with one of my ex-JC classmates, Alvin, who’s an incredible painter.

Alvin was so good at painting that our entire class called him The Monopoly (none of us could compare). His paintings were always intriguing and incredibly introspective, and as testament to his prowess, Alvin clinched the The UOB Painting of the Year Award in 2005. At 16, he was the youngest winner ever since the competition started in 1982.

(This is he, in case you needed a mental picture of how he looked like. Photo credits: Jeremy Lee)

Years after we graduated, I chanced upon some portrait commissions that Alvin had uploaded on Facebook (click here to see some of them), and it amazed me that he’d taken his love for art to another level and started studying fine art in Oxford (only because not many people do that).

Curiosity got the better of me and we did a quick catch up.

Read on to find out what inspires him and how being Singaporean has been integral to his art. I’m also pretty damn proud of some of his latest works – click on them for a more detailed view!

What have you been up to since I last saw you in JC?
In short, national service, 2 and half years of architecture school, followed by backpacking and trekking on my year out, and now I’m exactly halfway through my undergrad degree of fine art in Oxford University.

Why did you decide to switch from architecture to fine art?
I had wonderful memories of architecture school, but it was a very stressful place to be, and although my grades weren’t all too bad, I felt that it wasn’t something I would find fulfilling sacrificing so much of personal and social time for.

How’s art overseas, compared to in Singapore?
Oxford is a very beautiful and enchanting city, but it also feels like a bubble. Once I got over the thrill of the socials and formal halls, I often escape to London to get my weekly fix of the concerts, shows and exhibitions, and it was through this and nuggets of readings we are fed in school that I became aware of the breadth and variety of expression found in “contemporary art”. As students we are expected to develop our independent critique against this knowledge. It is very exciting to be here! Singapore’s art scene feels much more regulated and safe in comparison, but thats no real fault of ours, to be honest.

What about art education here and there? Is there a difference?
Art education in the UK is very unstructured and timetables are sparse. One is left to improvise and curate one’s own education. In Singapore, lessons are often highly structured and assignment oriented, and students are evaluated based on whether they match certain expectations and criteria. On the other hand, tutors here are more interested in processes. It was a culture shock, and I initially felt lost, so I started sourcing for painting commissions to fill the time. However, by the end of my first year I decided to ditch commission work and get down to developing my own studio practice.

Tell me about a piece that you’re most proud of.

The Memory Palace, 2014. Acrylic on canvas, 50 x 90cm

At this moment, I will pick The Memory Palace (2014) because it is one of my most personal recent works. The man in the painting has been a grandfather figure to me. He has made me look at the place I grow up in from a different perspective. It is a portrait of my relationship with him, and also, a memory of a Singapore that is slowly fading out.

Is there a piece that you struggled most with?
Every painting is a process of uncovering and discovering what exactly interests me in the subject matter and issues I have chosen to deal with.

What’s your normal approach to art making?
I often work from film sources, archival photos, research and documentation. I begin each work with an abstract idea of the atmosphere and issues I want to engage with in the subject matter. I paint from sources and documentation derived from archival, personal photos and film, but a crucial point in the work is the point of departure, in which the painting develops away from a representation of the photo into something else. My studio working processes have become very organic.

Tell us about your favourite painter / biggest influence. Which other mediums influence your paintings?
I love Caravaggio, Peter Doig, Anselm Kiefer, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Liu Xiaodong and Eric Fischl, among many other painters. My influences are very eclectic. I also love batik, among many other things. A mythical animal (pixiu) from an indonesian altar cloth (tok wi) found its way into a recent work, Water Night (2014), to give an example.

Water Night, 2014. Acrylic and oil on canvas, 90 x 60cm.

Do you have a favourite subject to paint?
I use painting to engage with memory, nostalgia, and connect the past into the present. One example is a work I am showing this March in a group show at ChanHampe Galleries, Singapore, called In Search of my Homeland (2015). Its a response to Chua Mia Tee’s Epic Poem of Malaya (1955), which belonged to that grand tradition of history painting, capturing people caught in the throes of political awakening. Sixty years on, my work is an exhumation. It is a point of departure, a farewell to a much older Singapore, a painting of social memory, a gathering of characters past and present, of living with contradictions of the remembered and deliberately forgotten.

In Search of my homeland, 2015. Oil on canvas, 125 x 180cm.

What have you discovered about yourself, through the process of art making?
I constantly interrogate what roots me to the place I grew up in. I try to uncover its past and its soul. In Singapore, I think art has a huge role to play in social memory because it is not black and white. It has the ability to speak what is often unspoken.

What kind of advice would you give someone in Singapore who’s interested in doing art full time?
What my art education here has taught me, is that one can never really “teach” art, perhaps art is intimately tied with individuality and expression. Each project has to feel like a journey. It has to develop organically. The artist needs to take risks. The artist must be prepared to fail.

Many thanks to Alvin for your time! Alvin does plan to return to Singapore to paint; I can’t wait to see what this guy will be up to in the future.

Till next time. xx

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