Image Courtesy Artist Justin Lim and Richard Koh Fine Art Gallery ©2020
Euphoria. Blue Utopia. Auspiciousness.
Childhood memories. Dinner with oneself.
Healthy-to-dream green. Shifting horizon. Humanity. Present moment.
An interview with the Malaysian painter Justin Lim is a quintessential itinerary in humanity’s sentiments and mood in the contemporary pandemic times. The talented artist has had his latest artworks showcased by Richard Koh Gallery Singapore just recently in March 2021 on the occasion of his solo exhibition Sanctuary.
Justin Lim’s vision prompts questions about the role of art in these dynamic times. Is art again closely following the changes in our society? Is art currently trying to make sense of transformations and guiding us? Has art left aside the contemplative abstract and moved on to manifesting an interest in human gestures, in closed private settings and in people’s searchingly-floating realm of dreams for a new life?
The young painter sees a vocation in documenting the times we live and navigates beyond idealism and pessimism towards openness to transformation in an attempt that is only natural for finding balance outside storming information easily accessed from every corner of the world through technology. The Sanctuary body of work puts on the map a new image of our society as part of a consistent artistic purpose after his previous exhibitions that completely preceded and seem to announce the pandemic: “Planet Shangri-La” (May – September 2018) and “Contemporary Chaos” (October 2019).
Sinking World #2 (left) ~ Planet Shangri-La (centre) ~ Acquaria #4 (right)
Justin Lim ©2020
Contemplating Justin Lim’s works is one of the isolated occasions to watch art taking the pulse of the reality so intimately and even in advance of global events. The artist offers a welcome mirror that says more than 1000 words about everybody involved in the pandemic. Presenting time as a succession of pivotal moments, the Sanctuarian paintings interlace works from the artist’s previous exhibition “Planet Shangri-La” through the painting-in-painting technique. In place of an inaccessible abstract, deep significance and symbols pour from a fully researched body of paintings through multiple veins, such as colour variation, cut-and-paste technique, close-up on objects, people, who are mainly the artists’ friends, their dreams and their mind.
Justin Lim’s artworks bring to light our deep relations with the past and yet offer the present’s most anchored image. Subtle references are made to Dutch painters’ feminine indoor activities as if in a suggestion to remind ourselves how our ancestors from the 17th-18th century were spending their life and private moments at home. At the same time, a profound projection of Utopia links the humankind’s faraway past in paradise to the yet unarrived future and embraces the “Sanctuary” paintings in a blue veil of dream, hope and reflection.
The artist uses ambiguity to catch the concurrent status of clear awareness under the pandemic and dreams to a better, abundant and beautiful world. Utopic dreams go from their natural calming blue to healthy-to-dream green, but also to loving pink and unexpected red to the extent horizons shift and transformation takes place in our world.
Quiet Euphoria (left) ~ Helter Shelter (centre) ~ There Comes a Point in Everybody’s Life When They Realise There Are No Superheroes Coming to Save Them (right)
Justin Lim ©2020
Roxana Florina Popa: One of your paintings is titled “Quiet Euphoria“. Would you like to expand on the nature of the feelings that inspired your work?
Justin Lim: My work process has always been somewhat chaotic. Amidst the chaos, some resolution would present itself at the right time. I tend to have ideas I want to express and struggle to articulate them through painting. I play around with imagery a lot to create certain narratives which I hope convey certain moods and feelings that reflect our society at that particular time. With this body of work, I wanted to capture the sentiment of everyday life today.
During the lockdown, it seems natural for me to re-look at personal objects, spaces and settings around me. The pandemic itself presented a very unique opportunity to turn inwards and present more personal stories and images through my paintings. “Quiet Euphoria” as with many of the other titles reflect upon these feelings during the pandemic.
In Our Frame (left, left wall) Justin Lim ©2020 ~ As long As There Is Still A Place To Dream 2 (left, right wall)
Justin Lim ©2020
Roxana Florina Popa: What kind of “glasses” have we put on since spending time in our sanctuaries? What do we see when we are limited in visiting our external environments that used to inspire us and provide us with many images and ideas?
Justin Lim: Spending time on lockdown allowed for a unique opportunity to turn inward and introspect. It also presented a time for reinvention as it was difficult in the beginning. I remember being just glued to the news all day, reading about the virus and feeling extremely anxious about it. Slowly but surely, as time passed, I found myself cooking, cleaning, taking care of myself and getting back into painting. It felt like… “Ok, I am going to be stuck here for a while, let’s go back to work!“ I think that a brief respite from being bombarded with information from our external environment is greatly beneficial to the mental health. As a painter, I do not depend too much on inspiration, because one can wait on end for it to arrive. Instead, I just need to be in my studio, working constantly day to day, in that sense, inspiration is derived from working not the other way around.
In today’s world, where we give so much attention to our electronic devices, being constantly bombarded with non-stop information is overwhelming. Internet has definitely shifted our attention span and focus. With these paintings, I wanted to portray a quiet time, a place where reflection and time spent alone are cherished. Where one is allowed to dream. However, what I am attempting in each painting is to pursue ambiguity in its meaning through the most literal representations.
When Will I See You Again? (left) ~ The Side Of You They Will Never See When You Are Left Alone With Memories (centre) ~ Safe From Harm (right)
Justin Lim ©2020
Roxana Florina Popa: What are the current sources for nourishing dreams in the places we isolate ourselves?
Justin Lim: For me it was reconnecting with simple activities at home, as well as reconnecting with myself internally. I found myself revisiting nostalgic childhood memories from time to time, during the lockdown. It brought back a sense of nostalgia which I also try to express through the paintings. My childhood was filled with a huge dose of imported culture. From the music I listened to, the books I read, the films I watched and even the art I was looking at. I grew up in a suburban neighbourhood and witnessed one of the largest shopping malls being built in the country in the early 90s. I had one of my first job in that mall, working in a comic bookshop and religiously reading American and British comic books.
Growing up in a young and modern suburbia also made me aware that the rest of Malaysia wasn’t like this, but slowly paving its way to “modernisation”. Sometimes I revisit those memories to put into context how much a culmination of East meets West there is in my life. This clash of culture is very much a clash of identities which informs me a lot on the imagery of my paintings.
Aquaria series (left) ~ No Man’s Land (right) Justin Lim ©2020
Roxana Florina Popa: The “Sanctuary” paintings interlace works from your previous exhibition “Planet Shangri-La“. What role do utopia perspectives play in the nowadays pandemic circumstances?
Justin Lim: Dreams and hopes are always two connected and important parts of life. I hope that the pandemic will encourage new perspectives on humanity to re-evaluate how we have been living our lives all this while in the name of progress. It has definitely made me think about myself and what I can change and do better for society and the environment.
Tomorrow Will Be Too Late (left, left wall) ~ Yesterday Was Too Soon (right, left wall) Justin Lim ©2020
Roxana Florina Popa: In your artwork “There comes a point in everybody’s life when they realise there are no superheroes coming to save them“, you show the bottom of the sea reminding of your work “No man’s land“. “Private Utopia” shows a woman contemplating huge peacocks. Have we “lost our horizon“? What are the messages that we intended to convey?
Justin Lim: I wanted to portray intimate scenes of everyday life, much akin to the 17th and the 18th century Western genre painting in these works. In “Private Utopia”, someone contemplating the current state of the world in a contemporary setting, perhaps questioning life as it is today and the hope for what comes after the pandemic, but remixed with imaginary landscapes and imagery. Peacocks have long represented good fortune and were a symbol of auspiciousness, beauty and nobility in traditional Chinese paintings and it was also important for me to combine the aesthetics and the subject matters from Eastern and Western art movements.
The seascape in “There comes a point in everybody’s life when they realise there are no superheroes coming to save them” was also from the Planet Shangri-La oeuvre. In today’s society where the world is connected via Internet, one can be exposed to the world yet have never left their home, and I feel that any kind of horizon is constantly shifting and reinventing itself. We are constantly losing horizons, as well as gaining new ones. As an artist, I just try to observe and document the times we live in.
Planet Shangri-La (centre) ~ Aquaria series (right) Justin Lim ©2020
Roxana Florina Popa: Why have you chosen blue as the dominant colour for your “Utopia” artworks and a colourful palette for the “Sanctuary” paintings? The “utopian” blue remains a constant of your “sanctuarian” paintings anyway, whether this is a small plate or peoples’ clothes.
Justin Lim: I became fascinated with blue whilst researching on concepts of Utopia, particularly how utopia was depicted in an Eastern context. I am fascinated with the depictions of paradise on 14th century Chinese Blue porcelain and how historically important cobalt oxide blue was as it connects civilisations from all the way, from Mesopotamia to Islamic civilisation to 16th century Dutch pottery. It seemed like the right colour to set the tone for the “Planet Shangri-La” works as it was already part of a long history depicting images of paradise and beauty. The colourful palette for the “Sanctuary” paintings allowed a significant shift in terms of how I can portray the everyday world today.
Roxana Florina Popa: You believe that the role of art is to raise more questions than it answers. The utopian landscapes in home settings appear sometimes in green, in pink and even in red. What is the reason for this colour transformation?
Justin Lim: I feel that the Utopian concept is subjective and variable as everyone has their own version of Utopia and what it means to them. I don’t believe it is necessarily attainable, but everyone has their own version of a better world. The colour transformation represents the different interpretations of it can mean. The landscapes mostly portray elements from nature as I do believe that humans will always turn to nature for solace.
I think we all are pursuing some sort of ideal state in our everyday lives for better or worse. I don’t really believe that art itself is going to change the world. People change the world, but art gives us room to ponder, reflect and mobilise.
I do not think that I am in search of an idyllic state through my works because I think Utopia as an inconceivable idea. Someone told that it is unhealthy to be a pessimist before you turn 50. So, I guess I should not walk down that path at this point. Can one be an idealist and an optimist at the same time? Or pessimistically optimistic? My guess is to find a balance that works and to be open to transformation, as well. Everyone sees the world through different coloured lenses and it is important to acknowledge and respect that.
Lost Horizon #1 & 2 (left) ~ Sinking World #1 & 3 (right) Justin Lim ©2020
Roxana Florina Popa: If one looks at your previous exhibitions “Planet Shangri-La” (May-September 2018) and “Contemporary Chaos” (October 2019), one can notice that the sequence of your artworks accompanied closely the developments in the past years. What is the topic of your next art project?
Justin Lim: Thank you for that observation, Roxana. I do believe that every body of work informs the next. Currently I am working on expanding this body of work from “Sanctuary” and that will keep me busy for the most of this year.
Special Thanks go to the artist Justin Lim, Richard Koh Fine Art Gallery in Singapore
and Ms Wei Fung, gallery assistant
About the artist Justin Lim
Justin Lim (b.1983 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia) completed his postgraduate studies in 2006 with the Master of Art (Fine Art) programme by The Open University UK conducted at Lasalle College of the Arts, Singapore after obtaining a BA(Hons) Fine Art majoring in painting. He has exhibited widely in Southeast Asia in various solo & group exhibitions and was the recipient of the 2008 Malaysia-Australia Visual Artist Residency at Rimbun Dahan, Malaysia. He has since held residencies at the Vermont Studio Center, USA (2011 – Asian Artist Fellowship/ Freeman Fellowship), Red Gate Gallery, Beijing (2013 – Khazanah Nasional Artist Residency) and The Tasmanian College of the Arts, University of Tasmania, Australia (2016 – International Artist in residence).
Selected group exhibitions include the ‘Asian Art Biennale: Viewpoints & Viewing points’, Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts (2009), ‘Modern Love’, Earl Lu Gallery / Institute of Contemporary Art, Singapore (2015), ’Asia Young 36 / Asia Contemporary’, a survey of contemporary Asian art practices, Jeonbuk Museum of Art, Jeonju, South Korea (2016) and ‘Contemporary Chaos’, curated by Demetrio Paparoni, Vestfossen Kunstlaboratorium, Norway (2018).
He currently lives and works in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
About Richard Koh Gallery
Founded in 2005, with spaces in Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Singapore, Richard Koh Fine Art is committed to the promotion of Southeast Asian contemporary art on regional and international platforms. Centred around a core belief in developing an artist’s career, the gallery looks to identify understated, albeit promising practices, and providing it opportunities to flourish. Through its regular exhibition cycles, print & digital publications and cross-border gallery collaborations, Richard Koh Fine Art engages the art community with the aim of developing regional and intercultural dialogue.