Lim Siang Jin restarts his whimsical art journey after a 30-year hiatus

His debut solo exhibition 'Restart 2020: Continuation and Change' represents his attempt to bring some continuity to what he did in the 1980s.

Siang Jin, who draws in part for children, likes to have fun with forms. Things out there are too serious, according to him. (All photos: Suhaimi Yusuf/ The Edge Malaysia)

Art, an underlying passion for Lim Siang Jin, inspired two spontaneous spurts between the mid-1970s and late 80s, resulting in more than 100 paintings. But he felt they were insufficient for a solo and “not good enough to show because there was not enough cohesion to my style”.

A career in publishing, communications, branding and marketing, and family commitments — he is a father of two — also restrained him from dedicating more time to art. “You either do it seriously or you don’t,” he believes. So, he put it aside for 30 years.

Disoriented when Covid-19 struck, Siang Jin, as he is better known, decided to collate and disseminate information on what was happening then, and also repack and catalogue some of his more meaningful belongings, among which was art scattered all over the house. Trial Painting Twelve (1981) an uncompleted work in a sketchbook, caught his eye and he wondered if he could develop it with fresh ideas.

Restarting from where he left off decades ago was on top of his mind. He did 12 mini postcards based on that work in May 2020 and was happy with the results. His enthusiasm in art reignited, he went on to do 10 bigger pieces using acrylic and drawing ink on paper.


Different works the artist has produced over the last few years form part of his Restart collection (All photos: Suhaimi Yusuf/ The Edge Malaysia)

These “restart” paintings represent his attempt to bring some continuity to what he did in the 1980s as well as change, the self-taught artist says. In the last two years, they have snowballed into nine genres of work that make up Restart 2020: Continuation & Change, his debut solo exhibition that opens on Oct 21 at A Place Where by APW, in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur.

The biographical expressions fall under various “themes”: Restart 2020: Continuation & Change (from which the show title is derived); Excerpts from a Doodle; Fear & Hope in Covid Times; Adventures with Acrylic; Exaggerated Stills: Expanding Mental Horizons in the World of the Mundane; Schticks: Revisiting 1989; Unconnected? (With Pot-Bellied Man); and Evocative Durian, Mystifying Durian.

Adventures with Acrylic marks the first change in his approach: he gave in to a touch of frivolity and not take art too seriously. “I tried to be whimsical and have fun with the forms — little things added together to form a picture. I was drawing in part for children so they could enjoy the pieces.”

Many of the pieces were instinctive, drawn fresh or from excerpts of earlier images, such as a doodle he did on tracing paper in 1988. Fear & Hope in Covid Times, also unplanned, developed in mid-June 2021 from an earlier painting and captures the contradictory emotions he felt throughout the pandemic.


Restart 2020 comes after many failed attempts to return to art in the last three decades (All photos: Suhaimi Yusuf/ The Edge Malaysia)

Returning to art relieved Siang Jin of the boredom of lockdowns but not dark thoughts spawned by the Covid-19 variants. To stop himself going down the slope of what scared him, he did some black “doodles” and turned canvases sketched-but-not-executed into Back to Black 2021.

Schticks was born from sketches done between 1989 and 1991, when he was head of publications at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (Isis) Malaysia. There is some gimmickry about the heads, torsos and limbs, and revisiting them early in the pandemic brought some closure to the project.

In Unconnected? (With Pot-Bellied Man), Siang Jin assembles seemingly unconnected but related shapes in two or three visual perspectives, using neutral colours, animal shapes woven into the picture and people in various actions. This series shows his keenness to experiment and move from one style to another.

Evocative Durian, Mystifying Durian, the main piece of his show, marries analogue and digitally manipulated images that are then shot through glass, which distorts and adds another dimension to the big picture. The idea is to create works reflecting the evocative feelings associated with the king of fruits.


'Restart 2020: Continuation & Change' opens until Oct 30 at A Place Where by APW, in Bangsar, KL (Photo: A Place Where)

Siang Jin is also very proud of his acrylic series and exaggerated stills as “the essence of modern art is to create an interesting form that stands by itself, but exaggerated aesthetically”. A curtain, lotus seed, battery, table, pill box, bracelet, toy, an iron or washing machine can be exaggerated, aesthetically, to fit a rectangle. It’s the same principle as cubism, he reckons.

Restart 2020 comes after many failed attempts to return to art in the last three decades. “There was no momentum. Mindset is very important too — you must be able to see some direction, the possibility of movement. It’s a combination of confidence, vision and the ability to commit time, effort and money.”

The relief of being able to paint again heightens the joy of creativity. With art being an integral part of his life now, he hopes to tap into his 40-year production experience and work with others to do new things.

He also wants to make art accessible to everyone, especially to those who say they do not get abstract pieces and does that on “I want to explain the motives because it’s not that difficult to understand.”

If Siang Jin, 69, seems like an artist in a hurry, it is because Covid has amplified his sense of mortality. A friend told him, coming to the end of your shelf life, just go ahead if you feel like doing something. “That’s what I’m doing now," he quips.


'Restart 2020: Continuation & Change' runs from Oct 21 to 30 at A Place Where by APW, 29 Jalan Riong, Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur. Viewing from 10am to 6pm daily. For details, call (03) 2282 3233.

This article first appeared on Oct 17, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.

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