A maestro’s retrospective

Singapore artist Goh Beng Kwan may be 82 years old, but he says he feels more in tune with colours and pigments than ever.

The Cultural Medallion recipient, who is known for his abstract painting-collages, shows little sign of slowing down and has released a book which catalogues his work and charts the highlights of his decades-long career.

The hefty tome, titled Goh Beng Kwan: Cresting The Waves, was recently launched at the National Gallery Singapore, and is also being unveiled in Penang and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia and Hat Yai in Thailand.

“As an artist, I have to see more, and I need to travel,” the grandfather of two tells The Straits Times in Mandarin. He makes regular art trips to neighbouring countries such as Indonesia, Thailand and China.

“I can’t stay at home and jia ba dan xi (Hokkien for “eat my fill and wait to die”).”

Goh has a studio in Telok Kurau but has produced much of his art during his travels. He has received praise for his mixed media work and collages, featuring materials such as rice paper, newspaper and found objects.

The artist wears his art on his sleeve – literally – turning up for this interview in a batik shirt – a vivid sea of orange, yellow and green – which he designed himself.

Also on his person are small souvenirs from his travels – a bracelet from a market in Yangon, a necklace with stones from Krabi, and an amulet given by a Thai monk who once hitched a ride from him and his friend.

He is an energetic speaker, and his enthusiasm for his practice is palpable.

“Like waves, my life has had its ups and downs,” says Goh, who saw his fair share of dark days as a young artist in the United States in the 1960s, where he was overworked and underwent major operations for a stomach ulcer.

He recovered eventually, and while he was depressed, art helped him turn the tide.

He quotes a famous Chinese saying: “Shan qiong shui jin yi wu lu, liu an hua ming you yi cun (It may seem like the end of the road, but beyond the shade of the willow and the flowers in bloom, yet another village appears).”

Goh, the son of a businessman and housewife, was born in Indonesia and came to Singapore at the age of eight. He did well at the Chinese High School, passing all his subjects for the High Secondary Certificate, with one notable exception – art.

His teacher, none other than the pioneer artist Chen Wen Hsi, was flabbergasted.

“He couldn’t believe it,” says Goh, who was also taught by another pioneer artist, Cheong Soo Pieng. “He checked with the Ministry of Education, and he said they might have failed my work because they couldn’t understand it.”

Goh later joined fellow artist Wong Keen in the United States.

Along with some other Singaporeans, they studied at the Arts Students League of New York and worked as busboys or restaurant staff to cover their expenses. This was the 1960s, when expressionism was still at its height in the US.

In 1965, Goh held his first solo show at Ruth Sherman Gallery in New York, but returned to Singapore the following year (1966) to care for his ailing father. He later worked as a framer before focusing his energies on art.

He went on to scoop up the inaugural UOB Painting of the Year award in 1982 for Sand Dune, an abstract collage piece. Seven years later, he received the Cultural Medallion, Singapore’s most prestigious accolade for the arts.

The world around him informs his work. “Nature is a big art studio. It’s full of unlimited material for art – trees, mountains, the sea. Everywhere I look, I see a painting. Take Picasso for example. He eats a meal, and can create art from the fish bones on a plate,” Goh says.

“I don’t believe in this thing called inspiration. Some people say you need to smoke or drink to feel inspired. I don’t believe in any of that. I’m able to work in less-than-ideal or noisy environments, they don’t affect me at all,” adds the artist, who has also responded to events such as the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, the Sars epidemic in 2003, the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami in 2004, and floods in Thailand in his art.

Although Goh is acclaimed for his bold, innovative work as a collage artist, he refuses to let this label define his practice, and has experimented with various other media such as Chinese ink, acrylic paint and watercolour.

Forays into other forms of art range from water collages and paper pulp works he produced at the Singapore Tyler Print Institute (STPI) in 2006, to a 2012 exhibition of ceramic paintings, born from his trip to China’s famed “porcelain capital” of Jingdezhen.

Asked what he thinks about young artists these days, Goh, whose two daughters work in marketing and insurance, says: “I’ve not yet seen any truly brilliant third-generation artists.

“Some artists these days don’t have such a strong foundation or basic training. In school, I was lucky to have been asked to practise xiaokai (small regular script in Chinese calligraphy). We used to hate it, but it ended up being a form of training. If I didn’t study calligraphy when I was younger, the strokes in my work wouldn’t have been as good.”

Goh, spurred on by his previous brush with ill health, now practises qigong and meditates twice a day.

He says that the biggest challenge he faces these days is figuring out how to constantly improve his practice. Hard work and innovation, he suggests, are key.

“As you explore and experiment with different things, you reach new frontiers.”

• Goh Beng Kwan: Cresting The Waves ($15) is available for sale at Cape Of Good Hope Art Gallery, 03-17 Bras Basah Complex , 231 Bain Street