Conversation with Ruben Pang

On creating a career as a fresh fine art graduate 
By Ian Tee

Ruben Pang, 'The Totalitarian Sun' (Triptych), 2017, oil, alkyd and synthetic varnish on aluminum composite panel, 220 x 450 cm (3 panels, 220 x 150 each). Image courtesy of the artist.

Ruben Pang, 'The Totalitarian Sun' (Triptych), 2017, oil, alkyd and synthetic varnish on aluminum composite panel, 220 x 450 cm (3 panels, 220 x 150 each). Image courtesy of the artist.

Ruben Pang is a Singaporean artist best known for his vibrant and ethereal paintings on aluminium. Recent exhibitions include 'Halogen Lung', Primae Noctis in Lugano, Switzerland, 'Contemporary Chaos', Vestfossen Kunstlaboratorium in Norway and 'Swallow Shadow' at Chan + Hori Contemporary, Singapore.

We speak with him about his experiences and the realities young artists face coming out of school.

Are there any differences between how you define success or failure today and eight years ago when you started practicing?
Being able to support yourself doing the things you love is still a surreal experience. I thought there was a chance it could be possible, but I never expected that it would happen so soon.

What were your expectations?
What I expected of myself was that I would decide on my own terms what it meant to be an artist. I would live that life with or without paper certification. It also meant the freedom to change my mind about what my priorities, goals and habits were.

Ruben Pang, 'Knives for Each Other', 2017–2018, oil, alkyd and synthetic varnish on aluminum composite panel, 220 x 150 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

Ruben Pang, 'Knives for Each Other', 2017–2018, oil, alkyd and synthetic varnish on aluminum composite panel, 220 x 150 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

The point about qualifications you brought up is extremely important. It begs the question about the role of an art school and what makes an artist.
When I first began art school at 16, I assumed that people were only artists in their free time and that you were considered more legitimate based on prestige of the locations where you exhibited in. This assumption panned out to be fairly accurate.

Based on the mechanics of how art school was run, I inferred that by choosing to have a career as an artist, as opposed to being a hobbyist, which I respect just as much perhaps more, you're agreeing to cede power to an abstract establishment or system, to play this game where the value of your work is determined by people who aren't artists.

One criticism of art schools today is that they are more concerned about employability.
I don't think that all students who sign up for fine arts want to be an artist, so the general education approach is fine. At the very least they leave art school with the open-ended question of what it means to be an artist. Hopefully, they also have some rudiments to begin crafting that life for themselves too.

Art school neither makes you any promises nor does it list a set of skills that you're supposed to have upon graduation. There is this notion of defending your work drilled into you which is a misinterpretation, on both the students' and lecturers' end, of academic criticism. It takes a lot of finesse to teach a student how to deconstruct themselves, think critically, accept there is no flawless concept and not be afraid to get their hands dirty, all at the same time. A significant portion of students enter art school inspired and sure of what they want to achieve, yet leave with an insecurity that has clearly been projected on them by the environment. A combination of verbose writing, tendency to weaponise a moral high ground, and hyper self-consciousness is endemic, while basic resourcefulness and competence with materials are lacking.

Ruben Pang, 'Metaphysical Police', 2017–2018, oil and alkyd on wood panel, 40.4 x 50.9 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

Ruben Pang, 'Metaphysical Police', 2017–2018, oil and alkyd on wood panel, 40.4 x 50.9 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

For those who want to make it a career, I think an artist has to wear different hats which includes navigating the art world and these power structures.
Developing a body of work may take the course of a few years out of school and at your own expense. Skip the small talk with gallerists, patrons or curators, be direct but not pushy. You can ask for their opinion on your work if they have time, but don't ask them to give you a show just yet.

You actually want to delay your entry into the "circuit" for a while. If that means working full time, so be it. Please note this is very general advice, and this was my own advice to myself. However, I did get lucky and people sent me emails before I had to go knocking on doors. So I've never really had the trials of having to "hustle" in any manner whatsoever.

The thing about luck is this: when lady-luck arrives, when a curator or a gallerist finally decides to visit you, what do you have to show? You must not assume that they will see potential in “work in progress”. Again, this is why the development of your practice comes first, even if it means slowing down.

What are your thoughts about hype around an emerging artist?
Every artist has his/her own pace. For instance, one might get some attention following a prominent group show, participating in a biennale or receiving an award. This may or may not translate to follow-up opportunities so the artist cannot take it as a given that it will mean a gallerist would like to start working with you. This can be very demoralising, but the sooner one accepts this reality, the better.

Hype doesn't bring you neither an attentive nor empathetic audience;its place is for things that are metabolised quickly. Within the context of art, it fatigues both the artist and the viewers.However, when you have an audience curious about your practice, even if it’s two people, be sure to show up, be fully present and be authentic.

Ruben Pang, 'Type 0 Civilization', 2016-2017, oil, alkyd and synthetic varnish on aluminum composite panel, 220 x 150 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

Ruben Pang, 'Type 0 Civilization', 2016-2017, oil, alkyd and synthetic varnish on aluminum composite panel, 220 x 150 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

What challenges you today
When presented with a blank surface, the hardest thing to do is to break its two-dimensionality. When we come up with images in our mind's eye, the depth is automatic and the difficulty is in translating this image with immediacy into paint. I guess the question is: how can one begin the painting from the first layer, the first line, as if one is sculpting? 

Another area of interest is the unification within a series of work. I've always enjoyed presenting a body of work that is visually quite disparate, almost on the border of looking like they're painted at different points of times. I wonder if I have the means to present the next series in a more cohesive way without resorting to overly obvious motifs. 

Finally, music production and painting have influenced each other in my practice. When I paint, I do ask myself, what's the equivalent of reverb in a painting? What's the equivalent of an element in the composition that is not seen or heard but felt vibrationally in a subtle way?

Can you share any upcoming projects?
I will be presenting what I consider a meat-grinder painting at S.E.A Focus in January 2019. I will also showing a body of work as part of group exhibition of painters curated by Michelle Ho at the Nanyang Technological University ADM Gallery.