Artist Alvin Ong talks about his surreal paintings

Singaporean artist Alvin Ong tells Dionne Bel how his surreal paintings – composed of multilayered ghost traces depicting the human body caught amidst moments of ecstasy and agony – play with the distinction between figuration and abstraction

Alvin Ong’s art is a deep dive into the physicality of the body. Fingers and limbs are elongated, heads askew, faces blurred, eyes closed or downcast, bodies semi-nude in repose or in movement, and figures interlace in and out of one another in an attempt to connect. Mundane moments are converted into spectacle and captured in intimate vignettes of existence to which the viewer becomes voyeur, encouraged to embark on Ong’s journey of longing, isolation and desire. A man lounges in bed surrounded by socks, shoes, slippers, books, cigarettes, goggles and an empty bowl of noodles strewn on the floor while another admires himself in the mirror and a couple embraces beside a car in a private snapshot of daily life. Inside bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchens, everyday human dramas play out, occasionally sprinkled with touches of Singaporean culture: we observe strangers reach for mobile phones and laptops, binge watch movies, grab cockles or durians, drink bubble teas, prepare rempah spice paste, take a bath, listen to music while snuggling with a cat, play the keyboard or ride a bicycle.

Born in 1988 in Singapore, Ong became the youngest winner of the UOB Painting of the Year Award at the age of 16. After studying at the University of Oxford’s Ruskin School of Art, he graduated with a MFA from London’s Royal College of Art in 2018. Currently living and working between Singapore and London, he has exhibited at the Singapore Art Museum, Asian Civilisations Museum and Peranakan Museum in Singapore, as well as the National Portrait Gallery and Royal Academy of Arts in London. Created mainly with oils in pastel or sombre shades, his Francis Bacon-esque paintings often portray his subjects with hazy facial features and hands, as if in a delirious state of motion. Laying bare deep human emotions, these duplicated images muddy the frontiers between abstraction and figuration, which are the result of the artist’s changes in direction, reflecting his constantly shifting frame of mind.

Describe your artistic language and philosophy. What is the most important consideration when you first start creating an artwork? Do you know exactly how it will look when you start, or are you surprised by the end result?

I begin by drawing directly on the canvas, and then improvising and going with the flow. The figure often comes first. I have a rough idea of the narratives I like to play with, but quite often ideas get tossed out quickly if they don’t match the scale. I often use the Doodle app on my phone to try to resolve the situation. If it gets too tricky, I often just paint over and start over. It’s quite exhausting, but also quite a rewarding process, as keeping things open often leads to many surprises and new colour palette discoveries.

Take us through the different steps of your creative and production process – your techniques, equipment and materials.

It begins with assembling the stretcher bars, then stretching the canvas, followed by rabbit skin glue,
then white primer and a base underpainting coat to the canvas. Many artists use assistants but I don’t, as I can’t really deal with giving instructions in the studio. For the underpainting, I often pick a random tone, and quite often it sets the mood. Then the figures come in, then the environment, the narrative, and finally objects and details, but it’s very fluid. Sometimes I revise the paintings very drastically very far into the process – it’s sometimes necessary to be brutal.

Your artworks depict scenes of everyday life. How do you come up with the themes or subject matter? Is there a common idea linking them all?

Random moments, conversations with friends and stuff I see online are all inspiration. I organise visual folders for them on my laptop. For example, I have one for “durian”, “market”, “gym” and all sorts of other stuff. I think living between London and Singapore also keeps the eye fresh and allows me to see as both a local and a tourist.

Tell me about your fascination with the human body.

It’s a vehicle for desire, but also a vessel for the possible. I love to play with its proportions, exaggerate, conceal, expand and contract it like an abstract form.

Why do you sometimes blur the faces of your subjects and give them extra limbs or digits, elongated proportions and contorted poses? Do you feel that your works blur the line between abstraction and figuration?

Yes, very much so. The blurriness often stems from an underpainting or when I’ve changed my mind and I’ve decided to keep both or more options open at the same time. It’s probably due to my restlessness and my varying states of mind. I like that painting collapses time in this way.

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