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(1) Ruben Pang.

(2) Power dynamics explored on Pang’s panel.

(3) Ruben Pang.

(4) The Body (Triptych) (2017) finds inspiration from Francis Bacon’s triptychs.

Power Struggle

Singapore's most sought-after young artist Ruben Pang reflects on success, ego and his latest solo show.
Dec 16, 2017 5:50 AM

TO see a Ruben Pang painting is to first be startled by the demented whirl of dense, shimmering colours - and then quickly start to enjoy, even admire, it. On his aluminium panels, smooth washes and coarse strokes wrestle each other to transcend the boundaries of the medium, inducing multiple and contradictory sensations in the viewer.

Pang has a preternatural sensibility for colours and compositions, a sensibility that has taken the young abstractionist to the top of the collecting scene in under 10 years.

At just 27 years of age, Pang makes works that command prices comparable to that of good local mid-career artists. A unique triptych measuring approximately 200cm by 424cm is priced at S$50,000. A large work measuring 220cm by 150cm comes in at S$30,000. A small work that's 30cm by 40cm is tagged at S$5,250.

His latest solo show at the Chan + Hori Contemporary gallery saw nearly all 17 works snapped up in one weekend, followed by new names added to the waiting list.

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Reacting to the show's success, Pang says: "I can't tell if it makes me feel alive or if it's putting me on track for a nervous breakdown … Don't get me wrong, I'm glad for its success, but I hope I never start buying into the surface of it all. I hope I never get soft and forget why I want to make art."

Since graduating from Lasalle College of the Arts with a Diploma in Fine Arts in 2010, Pang has seen his star rise rapidly. He held his earliest sold-out shows at Chan + Hori Contemporary (then called Chan Hampe Galleries) in 2011 and 2013, when his prices were about a fifth of what they are now.

He went on to hold solos in galleries in Italy, Switzerland, Israel and Australia where his works also found eager buyers.

And while this sort of success leads to its own inevitable backlash - "He's not that talented," say some detractors; "You don't know if he'll go the distance," say others - Pang has attempted to remain level-headed and philosophical about it all.

He notes: "The problem with most definitions of success is that you're pitting one person's work against another, so one person's work gets elevated while another person's is belittled. I think that creates a kind of mess. Instead of celebrating a multitude of expressions, we're focusing on just a few. That leads to imbalances in the market as well as situations where the galleries won't take a risk showing young artists with untested commercial appeal."

Arguably, such competition is inevitable in any kind of market. But Pang is right to say that having more young artists experiencing a similar commercial success is crucial for a healthy and sustainable market.

Pang reveals he spends a lot of time with his artistic peers so his success doesn't get into his head. But he may be underestimating his own charisma. Collectors flock to him not just for his talent, but also for his uncanny ability to articulate his inspiration and processes behind each individual work.

In a world where not a few artists are either reluctant or unable to communicate effectively with patrons, Pang stands out. Take, for instance, his incisive explanation for why he loves making art: "Painting is symbiotic to the way I live my life. It's like I'm going into a meditation session, and my mind is scattered, and then the painting calibrates it for me. It shows me everything, not just the pretty parts, but the dirt and the ugliness too. I don't try to hide the dirt and ugliness - it's there in my paintings."

How does the painter - especially the abstract painter - know when the work is done? "It's a physical sensation beneath my ribcage. I feel a sense of completion. And then, to make sure, I revisit it at least thrice at a later time. I take the image to Photoshop and look at it on the computer screen, as a measure of detachment. And if I still feel it needs to be reworked, I do."

His latest exhibition is titled Swallow Shadow, which he explains as the "swallowing of your own ego in order to create something that's honest and true". The 17 works range from his typical ethereal multi-hued forms exploding against dark backgrounds, to new impasto experiments melding figuration and abstraction.

The piece de resistance is a large triptych titled The Body (Triptych) - one of his largest works ever - depicting spectral forms glowering and contorting against a flat vermillion backdrop, each distinct from yet connected to one another.

In the exhibition catalogue, Pang writes of his fascination for Francis Bacon's triptychs and how the latter manages to connect these large corresponding panels despite never having the studio space to place them side by side.

There are certain colour similarities between Pang's The Body (Triptych) and Bacon's 1962 triptych Three Studies For A Crucifixion. And though Pang isn't copying Bacon's painting, there's a sinister tonality in The Body that echoes Bacon's work.

Pang explains: "The triptych was quite a battle to get done. It is essentially screaming three times in a row … The act of painting, for me, is very primal and savage. The dynamics of power is huge in everyday life and, of course, in the art world. And I think this struggle for power shows up a lot in my paintings."

Other works seek inspiration from sources as diverse as painters Peter Paul Rubens, John Martin and Gerhard Richter, psychoanalyst Carl Jung and poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Pang adds: "I'm always searching for the truth. I'm always reaching for something that's just out of my grasp."

Ruben Pang's show Swallow Shadow is showing at Blk 9 Lock Road, in the vacant space formerly occupied by Michael Janssen Gallery, in Gillman Barracks. The show is organised by Chan + Hori Contemporary and runs till Dec 17, 2017.