Profile: Justin Loke

Published on 12 April 2016

Artist Justin Loke makes his art accessible
by coating it with humour.

BY JO TAN

“I’m currently collaborating with someone on a painting that’s a parody of a pioneer-generation artist’s work,” says Justin Loke, who sometimes works solo, and sometimes as one third of art collective Vertical Submarine (Vertsub). “But I don’t always paint. Vertsub uses drawings, installations and once, even theatre — during my two years as associate director at TheatreWorks — to communicate narratives. We have a sculpture that’s currently auctioning at Christie’s in Hong Kong, but I can’t tell you what it’s called because either we haven’t really named it, or I’ve forgotten its name.”

The award-winning artist’s playfulness could mislead you into thinking he isn’t serious about his art. Yet his constant projects and art-mentoring assignments — for instance, as a part-time lecturer with the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Republic Polytechnic, and a regular mentor with Noise Singapore’s The Apprenticeship Programme — attest to the fact that he is constantly hard at work, no matter how irreverently he might describe his own efforts.

“I meet all kinds of students, but I see them all as patients in an asylum. If you visit the studio of the degree-diploma students for example, each student has his own partition, like wards in a hospital, and in each ward they’re doing something really strange that we somehow recognise as art. I have that same madness, but I think if you get sick enough times, you can become a doctor too.”

Yet perhaps it is Loke’s very refusal to take himself too seriously that has made his art accessible to many. His work has impressed audiences from teen art virgins to seasoned old hands. His first solo exhibition, The Seven Scenes of Barry Lyndon, was a painstaking creation of period oil paintings (reminiscent of those you might find in a European museum) based on Stanley Kubrick’s film Barry Lyndon, where the frames were really the focus. Then there were his popular co-creations with Vertsub, such as ‘Flirting Point’, the 2009 installation outside the Singapore Art Museum which purported to “restrict flirtatious activities to a designated area”.

“A lot of artists want their work to express their individuality. But in my practice, I see myself as a symptom of our society. It’s not me contributing to culture, it’s me being a result of that culture. That approach means my work is always connected to audiences at the receiving end. Especially with Vertsub, we’re always thinking about the viewer’s experience,” explains Loke.

“We may want to explore issues similar to other people, but we don’t want to make art that can only be understood by other artists or art historians. We coat it in something — often humour — that the general audience can relate to as well. Although underneath the sugar-coating, there is something bitter, if one is sensitive enough to perceive it.”

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