Alvin Ong (b. 1988) succulently explores the methodological structure of vision encompassing figurative as well as abstract features on his canvases. Actually, the young artist examines simultaneously the creative comparison between these two expressions of representation. Sticking with figurative forms, Ong mainly concentrates his approach on human curvaceous figures that comfortably flow on his canvases. At the same time, abstraction is surrounding his work blurring the painting lines, disorientating the eye and confusing the perspectives of clarity. The colour palette is concentrated on specific hues, such as yellow, black, white and dark blue. Furthermore, the depictions reveal an artistic coherence beholding common-based features: dynamic movement, vivid colours and grotesque scenes. Uncanny bodily silhouettes, mainly rendered in chubby and flabby shapes, evidently dominate his work suggesting the presence of excessiveness. While viewing Ong’s work, these body formations play a major role in the provocative portrayal of extravagant visualisations and immoderate narratives.
Words: Yannis Kostarias
Ong seems to make paintings that challenge gender fluidity within his surreal compositions manipulating the gaze with aesthetic details that uplifts the general depiction. The artist notes himself that he tries “to keep a light touch, and I try not to make them overworked. This involves a lot of looking, and allowing the image to come into its own, in its own time”. Although the viewer deals with remarkably detailed scenes, the Ong leaves his fantasy to form spontaneous creations where the characters are being slowly developed on the surface of his canvas. The painting style can be dramatic, yet its outcome is not overworked. Paintings, such as Insomaniacs, 2018, or Monsoon Pop, 2018, illustrate a brutal portrayal of intermingled bodies tangled into gauche and uncoordinated positions. Characteristically, Insomaniacs’ highlight is the hand of one character fisting the other’s mouth, while the latter one’s forefinger menacingly moves towards the other figure’s eye. Given this environment of fight, this revengefully awkward depiction is centered on the surface establishing it as one of the most aggressive and energetic Ong recently executed. Thus, expressions of agony and torture are thoroughly captured on the characters’ swollen faces.
The underlined lack of conventional limits leads the painting outcome into imaginative stories of affluence and hedonism. The voluptuous body forms do not rest on the overweight and inflexible external appearances, but invest on constructing substantial stories, which successfully fulfill the eye as well as the mind. Loads of hand movements, freely and illogically choreographed, seem to rule Ong’s canvases gradually developing an over-elaborate environment. Clumsy gestures with pointed fingers in uncomfortable positions present an ongoing abnormal body language. Bare hands and legs in summery also create an additional recurrent motif in his work. Moreover, deformed and irritated facial expressions are emphasised completing the painting framework with grotesque sensations.
Born in Singapore in 1988, Alvin Ong lives and works sharing his time between Singapore and London. The artist received a BFA from the Ruskin School of Art at the University of Oxford in 2016 and an MA at the Royal College of Art in 2018 supported by the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation. Among his awards is the residency with the Royal Drawing School in 2017, while he has also been the recipient of the 2018 Chadwell Award. His work has been presented in the United Kingdom, Singapore, Australia and Italy in art galleries and museums, such as the Singapore Art Museum, the Rizzuto Gallery, the Carriageworks, the Northampton Contemporary and the National Portrait Gallery.
Art Verge: Can you tell us about the process of making your work? How do you know when painting is finished?
Alvin Ong: I don’t really work with a blueprint. I prefer to allow the figures to be borne out of themselves; Parasitic at times, informed by design and accident, wrestling between a mark and an image. At the moment, I find myself using a rather particular palette, and pairing these intense colors against one another – whites, cadmiums and ochres, against umbers, Prussian blues and crimsons. I try to keep a light touch, and I try not to make them overworked. This involves a lot of looking, and allowing the image to come into its own, in its own time. Timing is quite important. Its like deep-frying, where the oil has to be just the right temperature for a quick dip, to give a satisfying and juicy tempura bite.
AV: How would you define your work in a few words (ideally in 3 words)?
AO: Liminal, fecund, grotesque.
AV: Can you name any artists you, lately or generally, take inspiration from?
AO: I often find myself drawn to the space of the in-between, where multiple cultures intersect, coalesce and influence one another. Some of the artists I look at include Qi Baishi, Christina Quarles, Dale Lewis, Utagawa Kuniyoshi and Hendra Gunawan.
AV: What do you hope audiences will take from your work?
AO: I don’t really dictate how my paintings should be read. As a painter I am often reminded that paint has a life of its own, and I am just the medium.
AV: What about the place where you work? What’s your studio space like, and how does it affect your process?
AO: I work from a spare room in my parent’s house when I’m in Singapore, and from a studio in Bow in London. But I increasingly think of the studio as a kind of headspace, so it’s quite mobile. In my physical spaces I try to keep an open plan, so that I can move my canvases around. It’s important that the canvases have conversations with one another, to allow ideas to germinate for new work to happen.
The larger canvases are often produced in very quick succession. The smaller ones however, take much longer to mature. This has to do with scale, and finding ways to do more with less. I suppose it’s similar to how writers talk about the relationship between a short story and a novel.
AV: Creating a new painting can be a solitary process. If this applies to you, when you concentrate on a new artwork does it affect your social life at all?
AO: I generally like to work in short intensive spurts. And then I leave the studio. I don’t come in for weeks, even months. I check out what’s on, socialise, travel, get ideas. And then dive back in.
AV: Which exhibition did you visit last?
AO: The most memorable one I saw recently was Elmgreen and Dragset at the Whitechapel in Oct last year. The magic in that show lies in the details. And also perhaps because of how its all quite theatrically staged and curated, what’s real and what’s not really begins to blur. There was also an element of surprise in some bits too. Really quite an exciting show.
AV: What does your mum think about your art?
AO: According to her, when I was a child, the first thing I drew were circles. And these soon mushroomed like graffiti around the entire flat, even on the toilet paper! Thankfully I have my own studio now, so this is no longer an issue.
AV: Are you a morning person or a night owl?
AO: Night owl definitely.
AV: Is the glass half empty or half full?
AO: Sometimes half empty, other times full. I use different glass sizes each time.
AV: Which are your plans for the near future?
AO: I’m currently opening my solo show at Yavuz Gallery during Singapore Art Week. Then in mid February, I will be showing with a group of UK-based Singaporeans in London. Concurrently, my gallery will be bringing my work to Art Fair Philippines and Art Basel HK. When I’m back in London I will work on an edition of prints to be shown at the RA in April, then a solo in London in October.
© All images are courtesy of the artist