The quiet glow of a security guard’s night shift in a wide industrial space, intimate conversations between friends after dark, and a lone occupants looking out wistfully from the bus window… Take a trip down Jonathan Lim (@whereartjon)’s Instagram page, and you are faced with familiar, yet often overlooked moments of Singapore life, not normally afforded to us in our busy day-to-day.
Lim paints intimate portrayals of his subjects, through isolated spaces and in vivid colors. They never seem to look at the viewer, instead looking sideways or outwards, devoid of overt emotion, inviting the viewer to narratively participate in the stories they may tell.
With his evocative use of colours to paint light and shadow, the paintings are tinged with sentimentality and a sense of urban loneliness, allowing us to re-imagine the depth of Singaporean experiences, giving us a deeper glimpse into the Singapore that we know, in the spaces that we so often overlook.
We speak to Jonathan about his works, his heavy music influence, Singapore, and what lays in store for him, including a graphic novel and animated video for local singer Inch Chua.
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To begin, could you tell us a little bit more about how your Instagram account began?
I got on to Instagram pretty late, only in 2014. It started out as a personal account where I posted about my life. But after four years of telling people what I ate for breakfast (I’m kidding, but you get the idea) I figured I’d rather keep my breakfast a secret. And instead of sharing my thoughts and experiences through photos and words, I started doing it through art.
- In your works, you focus very heavily on depicting “Singapore stories”, especially quiet moments, such as tenderness between father & son, and scenes after dark. What is it that attracts you to this?
There’s that line from Walter Mitty about how beautiful things don’t ask for attention. I guess that applies to quiet moments in that they are beautiful precisely because they are quiet. I’ve always been drawn to stories. Stories have a unique, subtle kind of power to make us think and feel. I focus on Singaporean stories because, being Singaporean, that’s what I’m most familiar with. And also what I’m most proud of.
- You depict moments that are very intimate, yet giving your subjects the space to ‘breathe’. They seem to come to life on their own, giving us viewers a sense of voyeurism. Could you tell us a little more about your ‘relationship’ with your subjects?
I’d hate to think of myself as an unwanted intrusion on these moments. Although now that I think of it, maybe I am. Albeit unintentionally. That’s something I’d need to spend more time thinking about. I’d prefer to think of myself as a silent observer making impressionistic records of these moments through painting. I’ve been told that my art has a certain sort of peace to it; in painting these things I find a bit of peace for myself.
- Where do you see this project taking you?
Most times I do things because I enjoy them and I think they’re meaningful, I seldom have a destination in mind. Although if this project could take me overseas that would be fun. If self-improvement counts, I’ve gotten better as an artist through this project.
I didn’t realize this at first, but this project is also about focusing on what’s good about our country, focusing on the things that unite us as Singaporeans.
- Describe your creative process.
I take photos of everyday things that catch my eye, then use those photos as reference for my paintings. Individually, my photography and painting aren’t that great. They’re stronger when used together.
I see that you also work in graphic novel form, and have collaborated with local musician Inch Chua. Could you share with us a little bit more about that? And how is it different when working in graphic novel form?
The collaboration’s still ongoing. I’ve been working on a graphic novel titled Walking Like Trees and Inch was kind enough to write a song for the book. The protagonist listens to the song at a certain point in the story, and that serves as a bridge between fiction and reality because readers of my book can also listen to that same song. We’re releasing both the graphic novel and song together later this year.
A graphic novel is many images coming together so it’s not all that different, except that narrative devices such as pacing and structure come into play. And you’re combining text with image to tell a story, so there’s more you can do with a graphic novel than with a standalone painting.
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Following that question, a couple of your works are accompanied with music. How heavy is the influence of music on your works?
Heavy AF. In the link you have there (image below), that was a song I was quite into at that point in time and a lot of the lyrics describe things I happened to be thinking about while working on that painting. I like it when different art forms come together and the whole becomes bigger than the sum of its parts, like what Inch and I are trying to do with the graphic novel and song.
Besides looking to music and album art for inspiration, I’m a hobby musician; I’ve had my busking license for three years now (I sing and play the guitar). I’ve found that getting better at music helps my art and vice versa. There’re lots of parallels between the two art forms. For instance, size in visual art is a bit like volume in music: a nice image usually has a mix of big and small objects, a nice song usually has louder and softer parts. Generally, people make the more important parts bigger / louder, supporting elements smaller / softer.
Busking where you perform in front of strangers in a public place is great for building self-assurance and overcoming self-consciousness, which I think is very important in art-making.
- Other than music, do you have any other influences on your works?
Film, definitely. I first saw Eric Khoo’s 12 Storeys when I was 15 years old, which made me realise art made by Singaporeans about Singapore can be amazing. Looking back, maybe that was a pivotal point. I also found Sandcastle by Boo Junfeng deeply moving. Kelvin Tong’s short film Grandma Positioning System (GPS) left me in tears – thankfully cinemas are dark.
Are there other visual artists that you look up to?
Too many to name. I try to look often at the work of different people and learn different things from them. My two favourite painters of all time are James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and Vincent Van Gogh. Comics-wise: Dave McKean, Mike Mignola and Adrian Tomine.
- How did you begin in illustration and what is it that draws you to this medium?
I’ve been into art since I was a kid. Later on I figured I wanted to tell stories and illustration was the most suitable way for me. I enjoy both collaborations and working alone, and illustration offers the flexibility of both. In other art forms like theatre and film, it’s very hard to work alone. You almost need to be working with a team all the time. And things are harder to control — it’s easy to make it rain in my art, I can just draw it in. On a film set, rain requires luck, good timing, or money.
What do you think about the current art scene in Singapore, and what is your relationship with Singapore like?
I think it’s growing at an incredible rate and I’m grateful to be alive in a time like this. Artists from earlier years had it much harder and I respect them all the more for that. I learnt a lot being mentored by Yong (design director, Somewhere Else) under the Noise Apprenticeship Programme (2013) run by NAC and later on under Phunk Studio in 2014 under their Transmission programme. So I’ve definitely received a lot of help from people in the art scene. We’re a small country with a small scene. I think that makes us a tight-knit community because we only have each other.
I’m proud to be part of a scene that’s making its mark on the global stage in every way — Sonny Liew’s three Eisners, Low Ser En’s BAFTA, Sandi Tan and Kirsten Tan’s wins at Sundance, to name a few. Only ignorant people look down on Singaporean art.
Lastly, what are you working on right now?
Besides the graphic novel and animated music video for the song Inch wrote, I’m currently applying to Singapore Bible College for a masters in Divinity. You could say I’m on a personal search for truth.
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