Subverting the struggling artist trope one ulu space at a time

Rarely is Woodlands described as a hub for arts and culture, but that might soon be about to change. A new art studio opened its doors last week, in the heart of the Northside neighbourhood. On the top floor of a newly furbished industrial building sits Roku Atelier, the brainchild of young Singaporean painter Chloe Ong.

Large, spacious, and filled with natural light, the studio is Ong’s “dream space”. The 25-year-old painter, who recently graduated from Slade School of Fine Art in London, opened the studio with her boyfriend Max Shen as a place to continue her art practice full-time. For the Woodlands-based artist, the location was a no-brainer.

Though it might seem an odd choice, Ong, who previously painted out of her living room, noted that industrial spaces were an up-and-coming trendy option for many local artists. She cited industrial buildings in Ubi and Queenstown as other hot properties, alongside the Gambas area in Sembawang.

Now showing at Roku Atelier is Staging Nature (through Mar 31), Ong’s first show of her latest series of paintings in Singapore. It’s also the first time she’s publicly exhibiting since becoming an award-winning painter.

She first crept onto the radar of local news outlets a year ago, when her painting ‘Roof Terrace’ won the Young Artist Award at the prestigious Lynn Painter Stainers Prize 2018. The British art prize recognises the skill in draughtmanship, and is awarded to artists under the age of 26 residing in Britain. ‘Roof Terrace’ currently hangs in the studio too, an obvious centerpiece of Staging Nature.

Ong with Roof Terrace

Despite her newfound global success, it’s not Ong’s intention to represent Singapore on a world stage. A true devotee to her craft, the young oil painter—who has also exhibited in Moscow and Hong Kong—is more interested in exploring the materiality behind her favourite medium, and reproducing the textures on canvas.

“I’m not painting mama shops or kopitiams, or dragon playgrounds—that kind of thing. I think a lot of artists here explore these local themes and cultural stuff, but that’s not the main theme of my art practice,” she said.

Instead, she is taken with the theme of artificial nature. Ong said her six years living in London made her gradually aware of how much artificial nature there is in Singapore.

“I once shared with my (international) friends that Singapore is full of beautiful waterfalls, but all artificial. It’s almost like a trademark already,” she quipped. “Growing up here you don’t know; at the bird park or the zoo you don’t question whether (the waterfall is) fake. I didn’t realise until I went to London—I had a habit of touching things and asking ‘Is this real?’, and my friends would be like ‘Of course it’s real!’”

Hence the title of Roku Atelier’s opening show, aptly stencilled above the artificial flower hampers, sent as congratulations from partners and friends.

In the middle, Approaching Utopia

Nonetheless, there is a certain undeniable Singaporean flavour to Ong’s paintings. “I’m just subconsciously influenced—my colours are very “Singapore”; my paintings are very tropical,” she said, adding that she’s received remarks from viewers saying her works remind them of “somewhere warm and sunny, like Singapore”. “It’s more like you can feel the heat.”

One particular work has even inspired comments drawing connections to local water park Wild Wild Wet. Done during her summer residency in London, 'Approaching Utopia' features vibrant splashes of colour—Ong’s attempt at capturing the tropical energy from summer days in both London and Singapore. It also attracted the attention of multiple art collectors in London, who made Ong a “ridiculously good offer”.

But today it hangs in Roku Atelier; Ong turned the offer down in favour of keeping it.

“I think I pissed off a lot of collectors,” she joked. “I don’t see (my paintings) as things to sell; I just want to share. It’s stupid because I’m an artist and I need to make money with my works, but I spend a lot of time with every work and they’re very different. If I wanted to make money, I would make similar works just to sell—and I don’t want to do that.”

Call it an artist’s empty nest syndrome, but her main concern is not being able to see her works again. “Personally I’d be happy if I could see my babies again, or if I know that the collector is willing to lend the collection out for future shows,” she added.

The view of the exhibition space from inside the Roku Atelier office

With the new space, Ong and Shen have much in store. While the studio presently looks like a traditional white cube, it functions as a flexible space—thanks to movable partitions and adjustable lighting. The two, who first met in Nanyang Junior College’s Art Elective Programme (AEP), designed the space from wall to wall, funding it with competition winnings and money Ong made from selling her older works.

They plan to host artist talks and painting workshops in the future, with the latter delving into more in-depth skills like stretching canvas and the science behind making oil paints. This will serve as their bread and butter; Ong will be taking a step back from painting to try her hand at other mediums. In that vein, they also intend to use Roku Atelier to host cross-disciplinary exhibitions for other creatives.

“I hope that this space can inspire more young people to do the same; I’m trying to get more people to open in Woodlands too,” said Ong. “I want more arts people to have the courage to do this kind of thing—then we can build a community.”

And while there are many things she misses about the London art scene—good quality materials for one; the staggering availability of galleries and studios around town, for another—Ong is ultimately glad to be back. Citing Brexit concerns and high rent as her main push factors for leaving, she feels ready to start from scratch on home soil.

“I think there are a lot of opportunities in London—but Singapore is nice as in that (the scene is) still quite new; you can shape things here. We can do this thing here; we can afford to experiment and have Roku Atelier,” she said.

“There are so many different ways to define what’s successful. To me being successful is having this space; I can be near my friends, my family, and have a comfortable life. I feel very happy.”

Staging Nature runs from Mar 24-31 at Roku Atelier, #08-69 Mega@Woodlands, 39 Woodlands Close.