Profile: Justin Lee

Published on 19 July 2016

He may be past the typical school-going age, but visual artist Justin Lee finds being a student again enriching and inspiring. 


People were surprised when award-winning 50-year-old visual artist Justin Lee decided to go back to school to pursue a Master of Arts in Fine Arts at LASALLE College of the Arts one-and-a-half years ago. “They’d tell me I’m already established, I’m already a master of sorts. But I was getting exhausted and perhaps a little too money-oriented after being a full-time artist for 12 years, and I saw the need to step back to relearn and recreate my visual language,” he recounts.

This time-out has been enriching for Lee, who feels that being a student has reminded him of the importance of in-depth research in terms of providing more analysis and narrative to an art project. “Before this, my work projects were quite touch-and-go with the tight deadlines. I’d assume a lot of things or just go with what the clients want, so everything was quite surface level. Research might seem academic, but it leads me to different paths and ways of understanding as an artist.”

Lee’s latest series of works in fulfillment of his master’s degree involved the use of recycled condensed-milk cans that he collected from a coffee shop in his Toa Payoh neighbourhood. He was inspired after noticing elderly collectors pushing around trolleys of used materials and objects, and wondered what their motivations were in doing such menial labour.

“I interviewed and documented them, and what I discovered was that for many of them, they really just want to feel alive, to still feel useful in society and not be too dependent on their children. One old lady told me, ‘I’m actually helping to clean Singapore up, you know!’ And I thought she had a point. This also led me to think about recycling — where do all these tin cans go? Most of us don’t really care, and yet we keep discussing green issues, so it’s quite contradictory.”

His interest in people, consumerism and branding has led some to christen him ‘Singapore’s Andy Warhol’, a label he’s honoured by, although his ultimate goal is not just to be associated with pop art. “Warhol and I do come from similar backgrounds: we did graphic design, we both enjoy food, popular culture and clubbing, but I also hope to come up with things that are different, perhaps even considered stupid sometimes.” In fact, in 2012, Lee had spray-painted a metal dustbin with the words ‘Anti Warhol’ as part of his Ten Years of Art and Craft exhibition held at Art Seasons gallery.

Upon graduating later this year, Lee hopes to approach work at a slower pace. “After this course, I feel like I need to observe the surroundings more, as there is actually so much to be inspired by. I never want to be stuck in a comfort zone.”

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