A different perspective on Singapore modern art
By Ian Tee
The story of modern Singapore art is inextricably linked to a consciousness of place and identity. The emergence of local styles and subject matter in artworks produced from the 1950s reflect an engagement with the politics of growing nationalism and the desire for an independent identity. Markedly, this history is dominated by local and migrant Chinese artists who synthesised traditional Chinese aesthetics and western modes of painting within a regional context. Their efforts took form through developments in Chinese ink painting, British watercolour styles, social realism and the celebrated Nanyang movement.
Born in Singapore in 1924, Vincent Hoisington was a self taught artist of Sri Lankan descent. He was recognised for being a pioneer in aluminium art in Singapore, a body of work produced just before his untimely death in 1972, at the age of 48. His explorations in three-dimensional form were preceded by a painting practice centred on his interest in the works of European masters such as Michelangelo and Rembrandt. These points of reference, combined with Hoisington's informal training in art, shaped a distinctive voice that deviated from an art-historical narrative heavily skewed towards the idyllic kampong life and the sanctity of the Singapore River as a pulse of the nation.
Before turning to a career in art, Hoisington had a daytime job as a piano teacher and pursued painting and aero-modelling as passion projects. This was until David Applebaum, a close friend and influential Jewish businessman, encouraged him to apply his creativity in conceptualising window decorations for departmental stores around town. As the city developed, opportunities also grew for mural commissions in new buildings and commercial spaces. Notable ones that housed Hoisington's projects include the Writer's Bar at Raffles Hotel, and a series of oil paintings displayed at the Talk of the Town restaurant along High Street.
Not bound by formal training, Hoisington's paintings demonstrate spontaneity and bold experimentation with materials available at the time. Although the works he produced in the 1950s and 1960s had the immediacy and flatness of action painting, compositions are held together by the structure of representational forms. Their highly energetic surfaces are created with the use of scraping tools, dynamic drips and swift brushwork, captured in fast-drying industrial paints and later, acrylics. Paintings like 'Untitled (A Scene from the Opera)' and 'Untitled (Capriccio II)' depict figures emerging out of the negative space after scraping away layers of splashed emerald and brown paint.
His propensity towards western painting genres was not lost on his friend, the sculptor Ng Eng Teng, who joked that he was the only one painting nudes, bridges and European landscapes in Singapore. While these points of reference influenced the paintings' mood and style, which tended to be expressionistic with a tinge of gothic flavour, Hoisington's works evidence a strikingly different type of light and finish due to the properties of materials used. His surfaces employ a mixture of matte and glossy synthetic paints, more akin to hard glazes applied on ceramics instead of a slow, gentle build-up of oil paint layers in naturalistic tones.
Hoisington’s iconoclastic home studio at 27 Margoliouth Road was a flurry of activities and a hang-out spot for the pioneer artists. Among whom, Hoisington was closer to Ng and fellow sculptors Aw Eng Kwang and Lim Nang Seng. It was also after spending time with Ng that Hoisington started scouring factories for metal cast-offs and experimenting on relief sculptures. He later participated in two all-sculpture exhibitions organised by the Singapore Art Society (SAS) in 1967 and 1969 that featured the same group of seven artists: Aw Eng Kwan, Cheong Soo Pieng, Lim Nang Seng, Lim Yew Kuan, Ng Eng Teng, Hoisington and Yeo Hwee Bin.
Despite being recognised as a lifetime member of the SAS, Hoisington's activities with the society were limited. In fact, a 1971 New Nation article even went so far as to state that Hoisington was "cynical about art societies and any form of collective art movements or exhibitions". The report later juxtaposed his views about the commercialisation of art with that of Thomas Yeo, who saw the situation with trepidation. What Hoisington had to say about commissioned work remains particularly telling of his liberal perspective:
"It's all the same. The best paintings in the world have been commissioned paintings. When the Pope wanted a mural done, he asked for Michelangelo because he knew Michelangelo was the best man to handle the contract. The artist is just a draughtsman."
This comment affirmed Hoisington's perspective about an artist's role and the ease with which he navigated the business side of creativity. It is fair to say that he also took inspiration from the artists he admired, when it came to the establishment of a workshop and self-promotion. In 1971, Hoisington opened a store to sell his works, named 'Tiepolo' after the Rococo decorative painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. He even titled a life-sized blue aluminium figure 'Entrepreneur', which is now in the collection of National Gallery Singapore.
Unfortunately, Hoisington's candle was snuffed when it burned at its brightest. His earlier paintings in western classical genres are outliers amongst pictures by Singapore artists, prompting further research into overlooked voices in the 1960s. Hoisington was considered among the prolific artists of his time, even though he had a radically different disposition towards art-making and its circulation. When he opened the Hoisington home-gallery on 28 April 1972, it showcased 130 paintings and aluminum works by him and his peers. Had it persisted, one can only speculate the influence and sense of community this might have created.
Vincent Hoisington’s first survey exhibition ‘Painter, Decorator’ is on view at The Modern Space, from 19 July to 23 August 2019.
For more information about the show, read our coverage here.