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AT 27, Luke Heng has just experienced his first major career breakthrough. At his current solo show at FOST Gallery in Gillman Barracks, nearly every single one of his works have been snapped up by collectors.
Heng's style is quiet and minimalist - an antidote to the busy, image-saturated world we live in. Moreover, priced from S$980 to S$4,800, the abstract paintings and wax installations are affordable enough for an art collector to take a chance on a young, unknown artist.
Heng is delighted, of course: "I want to make art for as long as I can. I know it's going to be a long and hard journey. I know many artists quit past a certain point because it's difficult to carry on or they just don't want to create anything anymore. But this is what I really want to do."
He admits he owes part of his success to gallerists such as Stephanie Fong, the founder of FOST Gallery, who gave him his first solo show. Indeed, a near sellout solo show for a young artist, occurring just two years after graduating from art school, is not a common feat.
While hundreds of fine arts students graduate every year from art schools such as Lasalle College of the Arts and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, very few attract the interest of galleries willing to spend time, money and other resources to give them a solo show.
Heng thinks that out of more than 70 students from his cohort at Lasalle, only about five have been actively practising and exhibiting in the past two years. The five include rising star Hilmi Johandi, who's sold nearly every painting he's made and is now set to show in New York in September at Fred Torres Gallery.
Efforts of gallerists
Hilmi's success can be partly attributed to the efforts of his gallerists, Stephanie Tham and Kamiliah Bahdar of Galerie Steph, who actively convince collectors to purchase his works. His show in New York is also the result of Ms Tham's long-time friendship with gallerist Fred Torres and financial help from the National Arts Council.
Besides Galerie Steph and FOST Gallery, other local galleries such as Chan Hampe Galleries, 2902 Gallery, Utterly Art and Galerie Sogan & Art have also been strong champions of local young talent.
The directors and owners of these galleries make it a point to visit student graduation shows to find fresh new talents. After inviting these artists to show at their galleries, they work hard at introducing the artists to their collector base and getting press coverage. They become adviser, friend, critic and sounding board.
Thanks in part to their efforts, young artists such as as Ruben Pang, Robert Zhao, Dawn Ng, Jolene Lai, Sarah Choo and Chun Kaifeng have become popular among collectors.
Gwen Lee, the founder of 2902 Gallery, thinks more needs to be done to support artists after they graduate.
She says the five-year mark is crucial in an artist's career. It's the point when an artist decides whether he or she would continue trying to make a living in an essentially unpredictable job. It's the point when many artists put down their brushes, cameras and sculpting knives to look for a more stable job. Ms Lee hopes to arrest that trend by collaborating with well-known artists such as Zhao to talent-spot artists in art schools and give them a platform to showcase their talent.
Other gallerists also note the relative importance of early success in determining whether an artist stays for the long haul or gives up within the first few years. The artist's life being as uncertain as it is, most artists see their early years as an indicator of whether they can make a living or not.
Collectors, too, are concerned with the longevity of an artist as it could make a difference in whether an artwork sees its value rise - or drop to almost nothing. Artists who stay in the scene tend to get better at what they do, making their earlier works more valuable. Indeed, some seasoned collectors prefer to buy only works by veteran artists because they know these works will hold their values through the years.
Danielle Tay, a 25-year-old recent graduate of UK's Slade School of Fine Art, says there are many obstacles facing the young artist: "It takes a while to adjust when you're just out of school."
"When you're studying at an art school, you have the privilege of making art every day in the school's studios. When you leave school, you have to start thinking of bread-and-butter issues. It's also very hard and expensive to find a studio space in Singapore to make art." Ms Tay now makes art only in her free time, as she has a job as an art teacher in a private studio. Her collage work and paintings are now showing at OCBC Centre along with the photographs of Angela Guo and Jonathan Tan in a show curated by Galerie Steph.
Like Ms Tay, Ms Guo also holds a full- time job while honing her skills as an art photographer. "I see my development as an artist in the long-term - I may not be practising full-time now, but I could be, in time to come."
High risks, big challenges
Galleries take huge gambles when trying to promote the careers of young artists. Ms Tham of Galerie Steph says, "With young artists, it's always a risk. You win a few and you lose more than a few. The fact is, the artists must want to succeed. They must show tenacity. perseverance and strength of character. Talent only takes them so far. They need to be dogged."
Ms Fong, who founded FOST Gallery in 2006, has championed numerous local young artists. Twin brothers Chun Kaifeng and Chun Kai Qun are among the talents she spotted as early as 2006. She watched them grow to become respected artists whose works are collected by museums.
But she says: "It's harder to run a gallery these days. The costs of doing business has increased, and because the works of young artists have to be priced low, the commissions that galleries take are also low. So the risks and challenges have heightened compared to what they were a decade ago."
This year, FOST is giving four young artists their first solo shows - namely Heng, Izziyana Suhaimi, Ashley Yeo and Khairullah Rahim.
Ms Fong says she selects young artists carefully because she has been misled before by young artists who make promises they can't fulfil. Some reveal great plans and ambitions - only to change their minds later. She now adopts a wait-and-see approach: If an artist continues to make art for a few years after graduation, it would signal that the artist is serious about his or her craft. Only then would she consider getting the artist to show at her gallery.
The rewards of finding a winner before others, however, can be immeasurable. Benjamin Hampe, the director and co-owner of Chan Hampe Galleries, struck gold when he went to Lasalle's graduation show in 2010 and chanced upon a young Ruben Pang standing next to his artwork.
Mr Hampe says: "Out of all the students, he was the only one standing there, waiting to talk about his artwork to anyone who came around to see it. He didn't know I was in the art business, but it didn't matter - he just wanted to talk about it."
"I looked around and his work was easily the best among all the students. I set up a meeting with him soon after that."
Pang's star has since risen. He is widely thought to be not just talented - but also hardworking and charismatic. His dynamic abstracts are arresting in themselves. But his likeable personality endears him to collectors. His price range two years ago was around S$2,000 to S$8,000. Now they're more than twice that. The waiting list for his works is "very long", according to Mr Hampe.
Most recently, Pang and the gallery scored a coup when prominent Israeli collector Serge Tiroche visited Singapore during Art Stage and found Pang's works to be among the most exciting at the fair. He invited Pang for a residency in Israel where the latter created 11 paintings. Most of them have been bought by Israeli and European collectors.
Mr Hampe says: "We're been actively expanding Ruben's collector base. We've done that in Asia and Europe. Now, we're eyeing America."
Next month, Chan Hampe Galleries will launch its Shophouse 5, a new artspace located in Geylang. The new premises will give artists the space to experiment and develop new works. It will also allow the gallery to continue nurturing the talents of young artists, such as Esmond Loh and Alvin Ong, both of whom are in their 20s and had won the UOB Painting of the Year award when they were teenagers.
Mr Hampe says with a hint of pride: "They have an exhibition with us coming up soon. You should see their works."
Luke Heng's solo exhibition is now on at FOST Gallery at Gillman, until July 26. Following that, a new exhibition by another young artist, Khairullah Rahim, will open.
Angela Guo, Danielle Tay and Jonathan Tan are showing their works at OCBC Centre on Chulia Street till July 17.
Chan Hampe's new gallery space Shophouse5 will hold an open house on Aug 15 and 16