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Jane Lee: Beyond the Canvas

Singaporean artist Jane Lee tells us how the limitations of painting as an art form have pushed her to discover the ‘impossible’ in her craft.

Jane Lee: Beyond the Canvas


October 23rd, 2013

By employing unconventional materials and techniques in her paintings, award-winning artist Jane Lee draws attention to the way paintings are made or constructed and in so doing, invites a re-examination of the art form’s significance and relevance in contemporary art practice. Lee’s works have been shown in many exhibitions across the region and have won several awards, the most recent being the 2011 Celeste Prize in New York (painting category). Lee was also the first recipient of the Singapore International Residency Art Prize in 2007. Here, she talks more about her work, and her involvement in exhibitions such as Art Stage.

Jane Lee

Beneath, mixed media on canvas (2011); Beyond the blue, mixed media (2011)

What made you decide to become an artist?

Being an artist makes me feel fresh, alive and sets me free. In life, we experience good and bad things and recognise changes. These patterns in life make me believe that life itself is like a playground and every event that happens is just like part of a game. Similarly, the process of art making provides me a bigger playground to live life full heartily and it can be done with much fun. I think artists are the masterminds of their own game: they set the rules, break the rules, invent and reinvent their own creation, yet are at the same time critical about their subject matter.

Jane Lee

Beyond the blue, close up

Why do you focus on paint as a medium? What is it about this medium that appeals to you?

I think paint is very fascinating and versatile as a medium, and it allows me to play and explore an infinite number of colours, which I find magical in arousing our emotions.


Without Stretcher, acrylic paint and mixed medium on epoxy canvas  (2012)

Your works have a three-dimensional quality to them, almost like sculpture. Why do you choose to explore beyond a two-dimensional canvas?

People often see painting as 2-D and sculptures as 3-D and this conventional belief has become a taboo. I thought there could be more possibilities in which paintings can be executed since it has been under-explored. My works have a three-dimensional quality, yet I would not classify the 3-D quality in my work as being the same as the 3-D in sculptures. Rather, it is the new extended dimension of the 2-D in painting.


Without Canvas, acrylic paint, mixed medium on wood stretcher (2013)

These works also often form a dialogue with the surrounding environment. Why do you choose to engage the spaces around your art?

I guess when you question what painting is, you will naturally realise the importance of where the painting will eventually be presented and the conditions in which the painting will be viewed.

We usually take it for granted that paintings should be exhibited on white walls, that it’s natural and that this is the way it should be. But I thought that if you hang a painting on a black wall, it would affect the perception of the painting. With these questions, I started to examine my paintings and engage the surrounding space where they will be displayed. As a result, my work started to become part of the architectural space.

Jane Lee

Status, mixed media ( 2009)

What key messages do you seek to convey through your work?

I want to believe that life is a celebration and I want to live my life as cheerfully as possible. My art is not about sadness; it aims to delight people’s hearts.Through my approach in art, I wish viewers can see light in whatever they do, and feel a sense of joy, happiness and hope.

You’re known for your inventive techniques and innovative use of materials. How important in your view are such explorations for an artist?

To me, an artist’s mission in art is to constantly challenge existing norms. For over the past 10 years, I have been solely exploring the possibilities of painting. I have created paintings that are sustainable without the use of canvas.

Jane Lee

Coming to terms with your own boundary III (2010)

What did you present at Art Stage 2011, and how did the audience respond to the work?

In the past years, I have been constantly challenging the practice of painting in the aspects of what constitutes a ‘painting’, how far the boundaries of painting can be pushed, as well as painting processes to the painting’s materiality, i.e. paint, support, canvas. At Art Stage 2011, I presented three variations of work under the Singapore Platform ‘Remaking Art in the Everyday’ curated by Eugene Tan.

In ‘Coming to terms with your own boundary I’, I attempted to engage with painting materials. This work was built up through multiple layering and cross-weaving of paint. The act of ‘tearing off’ a portion of the work further destroys the illusionistic space in the picture plane, pushing the work from a two-dimensional mode of representation into a third dimensional form.

Jane Lee

Coming to terms with your own boundary I (2010)

In ‘Coming to terms with your own boundary II’, I literally ‘sculpted’ the paint and applied them on canvas. This resulted in an artwork with a highly tactile, organic and delicate surface, thereby pushing the materiality of painting into the realm of sculpture.

In ‘Coming to terms with your own boundary III’, I allowed painting’s conventional support – the canvas and the wall – to becomes the ‘paint’ of a painting. I attempted to liberate them from their physically confining roles as they replace paint’s role as the active agent, thus forming the essence of the painting.


Jane Lee

Coming to terms with your own boundary II, acrylic paint, heavy gel on canvas (2010)

At Art Stage 2014, you will be presenting a new work titled “50 Faces”. Can you tell us more?

50 Faces comprises fifty miniature painting objects, presented on a ten-metre-long wall. It is my attempt to create a painting’s portrait – and to incorporate viewers’ faces into the work in order to add an element of interaction.

How is this similar or different to what you have done in the past?

A lot of my explorations with painting thus far have focused largely on experimenting with various techniques of building layers upon a plane. Along the way, it occurred to me that this concept of layering is very much a Western practice. This led me to rethink my practice and I started to incorporate my experiences of Eastern philosophy, specifically Chinese painting, where the empty spaces are often the focal point for creating the essence of what a painting is attempting to reveal.

In the process of examining these influences in 2010, I began creating my current body of work, which is concerned with subtracting from the picture plane rather than building on or from it.

Art Stage will be returning in 2014, from 16 – 19 January at the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. For more information visit

For more on Jane Lee and her work, go to

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