Kayleigh Goh on Constructing Quiet Spaces, Using Humble Materials and a Sense of Balance
Kayleigh Goh is interested in the psychological and poetic implications of place, such as how different spaces can evoke distinct emotions. Using construction materials as her main materials, her works attempt to immortalise personal experiences of ordinary spaces in a soft palette.
As Kayleigh prepares for an upcoming installation, we meet with her over coffee for a quick chat. Her selection of artworks from which to begin our conversation reflect the multiplicitous nature of her own practice — ranging from painting (Giorgio Morandi’s Natura Morta and Edward Hopper’s Sun In An Empty Room), to architecture (Tadao Ando’s Chichu Art Museum) and screenprints (Agnes Martin’s Untitled from On A Clear Day).
Tell me more about the artworks you chose — what were the reasons behind this particular selection of works?
Prior to practising as an artist, I found myself being drawn to and enjoying works such as the ones I’ve chosen here. I thought about why I liked these works, and those reasons have come to shape my practice.
You’ve chosen a really interesting selection of works, including one painting by Edward Hopper. When I first came across your works, Hopper’s work came to mind immediately. In previous interviews you’ve done, you’ve described your work as “finding warmth in spaces”. On the other hand, Hopper’s work are characterised as depictions or portrayals of loneliness. Do you see your works as exploring similar themes?
The starting point for my practice was my fear of aloneness as an idea. Aloneness is not loneliness or solitude per se — it refers to, simply, the state of being alone. At the time, I was thinking about loneliness, aloneness and solitude, and how I could resolve these personal feelings.
I’m inspired by the feeling of loneliness, but I’m not trying to portray loneliness. The process of painting spaces full of straight lines helps me, in turn, to feel grounded. We often find ourselves lost or afraid of the thought of being alone because we don’t feel grounded in our hearts. If we work towards finding our bearings, we’d be better able to appreciate solitude. I create warmth in quiet spaces, because it is through my understanding of loneliness that I portray solitude.
I’m intrigued by what you said about drawing upon the feeling of loneliness, but not portraying it per se. Because this comes from such a personal place, what is that process of translating that emotion into a visual form like for you?
My painting processes are all rather straightforward, linear and sometimes, calculated. This helps to give the painting a sense of sureness. I don’t paint in a very free or expressive manner. I calculate the perspectives to ensure that everything aligns. It’s like tidying up one’s room because that physical act can help with putting all your thoughts in place. Similarly, this process helps me to tidy up my thoughts and my fears.
There is also a very distinct colour palette and visual language to your works, and this is reflected in your selection of artworks for the interview as well. Why are you drawn towards using muted colours and minimalist shapes in your works?
I started using muted colours first, and only later realised that everything linked up nicely. Colours have different voices, and that’s why the word “muted” is interesting too. I thought these colours would work better for my paintings.
With that, is it important that your paintings evoke an overall atmosphere of quietness?
Instead of depicting loneliness in an obvious manner, for example by portraying people in solitude, why turn to more subtle tools, such as the use of colour, to create this atmosphere?
If I were to draw that scenario out in a literal manner, it would be an illustration of an idea. However if I consider aspects such as colour, space, and texture, it reproduces an experience. To illustrate would be an informative means of communication, but using visual tools like those I’ve just mentioned allows for a sensorial mode of communication.
In Chinese, I’d say — 不是画那个地方， 而是在画那个地方的气质 (As compared to drawing a physical place, I am drawing the characteristics or quality of the place). There’s always a difference between how we perceive one’s looks and one’s aura. By using colour, space and texture, I try to recreate the aura of a place, or at least what I felt when I was there.
It comes down to these subtle balances between warm and cold. I see cement as a colder element in my works, and the exposed wood frames as providing an element of warmth. When I first started working on my solo showcase, And yet, if only, at Gajah Gallery, I wasn’t feeling great. As a result of that, I used more cement in creating some of the earlier works. Later on, the exposed wood frames became more prominent in my works. I didn’t state anything explicitly, but Joyce Choong, who wrote an article for the exhibition, asked if I was feeling happier upon seeing the later works. She said she could see the openness and warmth coming back into my works again.
I don’t start out my works thinking that I want the work to be a pointed depiction of loneliness or solitude. I don’t work towards portraying a single fixed feeling, but I can describe them with a couple of keywords. The sort of experience a viewer has with my works also depends on their personal definition or understanding of loneliness and solitude. For example, cold places put some people at ease, and make others feel uneasy.
In other words, although the place is important, the essence of the place is what you’re trying to capture in your works?
Someone asked me before if I only draw upon quiet places in my works. I’ve actually been inspired by places that are quite noisy as well, so it’s more about the state of mind than anything else. At that point in time, I was feeling rather stressed; but it just so happened that that feeling resolved itself whilst I was in a noisy place. In that moment, despite the environment, I felt a strong sense of peace. Places do inspire my work, but my work goes beyond the physical setting itself. It also draws upon where I’m at, personally and emotionally, at that moment.
There are sometimes so many layers to these thoughts, and it’s sometimes hard to describe where it all comes from in a linear manner.
I also want to talk about your use of concrete as a medium. Concrete is a material that is commonly associated with buildings, architectural structures and sculptures. When you use concrete on a canvas, do you see yourself as painting with concrete or building with concrete?
I’ve never given it a specific term or name, but I think I would say that I construct spaces. When one paints, one plays with light and shadow to create a three-dimensional effect, so I see the difference between my use of concrete and the method of painting. On the other hand, I’m not really sculpting either. I would say it comes in between.
Tell us more about how you came to work with concrete in this manner.
When I was in school, my lecturer once asked me, “Why do you want to paint? We can take photographs in a matter of seconds, so why paint?” These questions helped me realise that it was the textural quality of paint that I liked best. The most literal way of pursuing that would be to push the boundaries when it comes to the textural aspect of painting. Cement was a material that allowed me to explore these ideas.
When you first started practising as an artist, did you start out using more “conventional” mediums? Something that comes to mind immediately is how oil paints can be layered to have a thick, structural quality about them.
I started out using graphite, and black Chinese ink. I knew that I liked materials that were very raw, but both graphite and Chinese ink are mediums that illustrate instead of construct space.
Oil paints give me an impression of hierarchy. It is an expensive material, and in Western contexts, oil paintings are usually owned by royalty or the wealthy. I wanted to use a material that was humble, and that would have a sense of being down-to-earth. Because of this, I found myself attracted initially to graphite pencil and Chinese ink. However in order to attain a textural quality in my paintings, I found myself working with concrete.
Having used both graphite pencil and Chinese ink before, do you find your knowledge of these two mediums influencing how you now approach concrete in your paintings?
Definitely, especially with Chinese ink. I was educated in a Chinese school, and during my time as a student, we were taught Chinese calligraphy. In calligraphy, the balance within and between each character is really important. Within each character, certain strokes would have to be heavier than others in order to maintain a sense of balance. I took a Chinese ink painting course whilst at LASALLE as well. During the course, the 老师 (teacher) emphasised the importance of the overall visual balance over representational skills.
Learning the importance of balancing the placement of strokes or elements has really influenced my practice. In order to create works that are grounded, balance is really important. When planning out my works, I ask myself questions such as, “how big should this wall be?”, or, “how thick should the separating lines be?” All the spaces within my works are calculated and measured.
Because your works deal with spaces, do you find that displaying them in actual physical spaces adds yet another layer to your work? If so, what are your considerations when exhibiting in various physical spaces?
For my recent solo show at Gajah Gallery, I was familiar with the gallery space. I knew that the space was rather large, so my works didn’t have to be limited in terms of size. Although I was free to do large paintings, I didn’t create paintings specifically for the gallery space. Whilst installing, I requested that the paintings be hung slightly lower as was usual protocol. Coming back to the sense of being grounded again, it was important for me that these paintings be positioned closer to the physical ground.
Especially with the larger paintings in this solo showcase, having them closer to the ground allowed viewers to get a sense of how it would be like to step into the space you’ve created. Was this an effect you intentionally sought to achieve by hanging these works lower?
In the exhibition, there was one particular painting with which I planned for it to give the impression of a specific space. When viewers stand in front of that piece, they do feel like they’re a part of the painting, looking out of the window.
That’s almost like creating an interactive artwork, and painting is not what usually commonly comes to mind when one thinks of an interactive work.
I explore these interactive elements more in an upcoming work, Just Another Paralleled Day, which is part of Placing Home: Woodlands. With that work, I’ve cut out a single square in the middle so that the staircase behind the work peeks through. When the residents use the staircase, they end up participating in the artwork — knowingly or not. They become a part of the work.
This particular work explores the notion of home. I was asked to do a work that draws upon my experience of constantly travelling between both Johor Bahru and Singapore. Living between two cities can sometimes feel like one is living between two parallel lives. Although there are many similarities between Singapore and Johor Bahru, they still are two very distinct places. With differences in things such as culture and government, I find that the perspectives of my Singaporean friends are different to those of my friends from Johor Bahru. This was what I wanted to explore in this work and with the space given to me. Within a single physical space, I’ve created an illusory space.
I also wanted to try something different with this commission. Public engagement was really important, but I work in painting. I wanted to see how I could get people to engage with my paintings, so carving out a window from the work incorporates an audience into the work — both in a conscious and subconscious way.
Another thing I was thinking about whilst creating this work was the relationship I have with both cities. I split my time up between two places, and because of this, I wonder what the nature of the connections I have to my friends in both places is. Is it a superficial one, or are we able to connect on a deeper level? As such, this work probably will not give audiences a feeling of calmness or of being grounded. I see it, instead, as a more surreal, uncanny landscape.
Is this the first time you’ve attempted a public installation on such a large-scale?
I’ve done smaller public installations before, such as the one at Waterloo Street titled Lost In The Midst Of Time. That particular work was formed out of a few smaller paintings. We were asked to create an artwork in response to that space, and entering it, I really got a sense of time passing by. The building itself is old, and the flats are occupied mostly by single elderly folk. I created works with debris I found, such as segments of paint that have been peeled off from the wall, around the building. I wanted the work to speak to this idea of time passing and of forgetting. It was kind of melancholic, but at the same time, one could still feel the beauty in the work. I wanted to evoke the notion of things ageing for the viewer, and something that comes to mind here is the Japanese term, 侘寂 (wabi-sabi).
In comparison, this one at Woodlands is a large, painted mural. I’m still in the midst of installing the work, so it’s not ready at the moment. As the artwork shapes up, this is when I feel I’m able to tidy my thoughts up best.
Is the work going to be a temporary fixture, or will it remain on site for a couple of months?
The work goes public on November 6th, and will stay in Woodlands until Singapore Art Week in January 2019.
Something you mentioned whilst we were exchanging emails leading up to our chat was that your studio is in Johor Bahru at the moment. Do you find your experience with travelling between different places seeping into the works you create?
When one stays in one place for a long period of time, she or he can end up going through the motions of living there. One could become less mindful of one’s environment. Personally, I feel refreshed by my travelling between the two cities. It switches up my experience of a familiar place, and helps me to remain aware of my surroundings. The travels that I do allow me to have the fresh mind with which to pick up these small details that surround us.
Sometimes, I see my practice as going in two different directions. On one hand, my works are about loneliness and solitude; but on the other, I also use these works to explore my own understanding of space.
What other projects are you working on at the moment?
Having just wrapped up my solo showcase at Gajah Gallery, I think I’m currently in a space where I want to reset and explore. I want to break out of my comfort zones by adding new elements into my work. I’m looking at how I can travel to different cities, learn new things, or picking up new skills.
Recently, a close friend of mine said that the works I create are rather representative of my state of mind at that particular point in time. If I’m in a more unstable place, I tend to stick with using old styles so the new work tends to look similar to previous works of mine. However when I’m feeling more settled, my works end up delving into new territories.
The solo show was a huge project for me, so I think it’s time for me to enter that exploratory phase again.