The human body – a landscape as familiar as it is foreign to us, even though it is the very skin we wear on ourselves. Tangibility aside, what transcends the skin are the raw emotions that function as fuels for our skin suits; cumulated from experiences that would only be fitting as the wheel that steers our moods and thoughts. If this were so that we are mere mechanical beings capable of getting by the day yet incapable of fully understanding ourselves, then, at the very least, the works of Singaporean artist Yanqing Low (b. 1985) should open the windows of our eyes a little wider to understand our human condition a little better.
How did art become your profession?
My first steps were rocky. Like the majority of Asian households, I was taught to believe that my artistic endeavours would never keep me fed. For that, I pursued other avenues that promised better returns in the commercial realms of illustration and graphic design, but it was not particularly fulfilling. In a country where wealth and status are intrinsically linked, it was easy to conflate them with worth. Even after graduating from Lasalle College of the arts with my BFA, I continued to feel like I had to make a certain sort of art to be considered even remotely relevant. But time changes many things. I am older now, hopefully wiser too. These days, I paint and create art that appeals to my own needs first, and others’ second. It keeps me honest, and my mind healthy.
Bodies are at the core of your work. You mentioned, “Bodies, to me, are expressions of vigour, possibility, and connection.” Could you elaborate more on that?
There is a great deal of potential for empathy and emotion in a figurative practice that I think many had lost an appreciation for between the 60s and 90s when the wider art market veered towards a certain sort of abstraction and conceptualism. It put subject matter and its execution in the back seat to the art as art in and of itself. Too often, it was as if the latter would prefigure the former, rather than the other way around.
However, figures, objects, and landscapes have never left the creative process, and for good reasons. Our aesthetics are informed by what we know. This, by and large, is derived of the physical world as we encounter it. Even at their most abstruse, we may relate to an Albers as tunnels and warps of extended space, or a Wolfgang to barely remembered moments and places. These all serve to tap into our connections to space, people and forms that we then project onto our conversations with art.
On the matter of bodies, the body is unique in that it is ours, but not Ours. A part of me leaps with another as they leap, hurts when they hurt, and shares in their joys and pains. We are the same yet removed and it makes their syntax intuitive. In their making and reading, our ability to relate viscerally to the human form opens up imaginative avenues into a more primal part of ourselves that is often held undertow.
In a similar vein, it is impossible to escape thinking about my own place in society as a woman, being one myself – just as it is impossible to avoid thinking about what it is to be a sister and daughter, a Singaporean, Chinese, and a human being. Our experience of existence is ever coloured by our personal interactions with other people and things, and those in turn are affected by their perceptions of you. Ultimately, I make it a point to paint what I know.
This body of work was made with Plato’s cave in mind. The cave is often used as an allegory to teach us that we can never really know anything, even when we think we do in that given moment. It tells us that all certainty is an illusion and that learning is a continuous process. Most of the series was made after the end of a long relationship when I was processing many of those free-falling emotions that come of connecting with another person so deeply that you feel like you are a single unit, moving together in all things, only to have it all end. You lose a part of yourself when it happens, and nothing else is quite the same; you cannot help but change. I wished to make sense of this unsteady emotional space, through form, colour and structure. I’ll let you decide whether I found some truth in all of it.
How would you define your style?
With movement and emotion. My aesthetic is informed by a wide array of art and artists that I’ve grown to appreciate and admire. That said, I do draw a great deal of inspiration from the way some abstract expressionists and mannerists have thought to approach the human form. I love the way El Greco and Pontormo drew the body to depict idiosyncrasies in emotion and form, and how De Kooning and Rothko managed to scarper the lot and make it exciting in a different way. I also favour an impressionistic approach in their relative aims to capture something fleeting and coarse, yet subversively beautiful.
On the whole, defining a style serves very little while making the work itself, if indeed one might still bear that romantic desire to create something different, individual and new in the 21st century. Perhaps it’s a matter of how we’ve learned to talk about art that makes definition problematic, or simply an outsider’s prerogative to resist being put in a box. But I’ve found “style” to be a concern of history, not the present.
Do you think that the role of artists in society is paramount?
It’s as important as anything else.
Think of all the things you love in the modern world, and it’s unlikely that art, science, and mathematics have not touched them in some way that was and remains invaluable. I find that such questions of roles and purpose are overwrought and remnant of philosophies where people are valued for specialised skills over their humanity. As if we were built like machines to do only one thing – to care only for one thing.
And sure, perhaps we could be. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that what works and doesn’t work for a society can vary greatly for a whole assortment of rationalisations, with divergent results and mortal consequences. The question one should ask themselves is – what would you be without art and artists – without the Frankenthaler’s, Scorsese’s, and Yo-Yo Ma’s? That’s just to name a few. Because it all feeds into a collective imagination and understanding of who we were, who we are, and who we could be.
Just as how people are collisions of ideas, energies, and relationships, there still lies a flow of interaction between the individual bodies. No matter how far apart anyone is, we are, in fact, not far from the hive of human consciousness. This collision is only accentuated by the strokes and colours of Low who paints a bigger picture for all to witness how the interactions pay out among ourselves.
Flow into the art of Yanqing Low through these platforms:
Artist site: https://yqin.art/
Lazuli Art Dealer: https://www.lazuli.art/