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The Portrait of Dominic Thian

By the Pedestrian

Dominic Thian is a young Singaporean artist who specialises in still life, portraiture and landscape paintings. Through the combination of classic figurative techniques with a modern sensibility, Dominic creates realistic and sensitive depictions of people, scenes and objects that move his viewers with its profound and timeless beauty.

It is easy to mistake Dominic Thian as the archetypal young, ambitious Singaporean who is raring to kickstart his career in the corporate world. Not only is he tall and conducts himself with a level of decorum befitting of the boardroom, Thian came to our meeting on a muggy Wednesday afternoon at a café in Goodman Arts Centre dressed in preppy fashion consisting of a mint green button-down shirt and cream shorts. Yet, apart from the ambition, this young artist is anything but. As we began chatting, I noticed a gentleness amidst the conviction in his voice, the kind that a doctor breaking disastrous news to a patient might adopt. He was very measured with his words, punctuating sentences with pauses as he fell deep in thought. “I’m just afraid that I will be cancelled for what I say,” Thian remarked, not before breaking into a chuckle. In an age where cancel culture prevails and our words hold so much weight, it is unsurprising that Thian is deliberate with what he says. However, more than just being afraid of the cancel culture mob, one wonders if this continuous act of pondering actually reveals Thian’s need for precision in the words and deeds that he puts out to the universe. As our conversation proceeded, I would come to learn that this level of precision informs not only his artmaking but his personal beliefs too.

"The best art is about holding on tightly to convey what they [the artist] can see but letting loose to allow the moments of spontaneity and the initial impression to come through."

Art for Beauty’s sake

My first proper encounter with Thian’s paintings was during his debut feature at AC43 Gallery in September. What struck me from the get-go was the genre in which a young artist like Thian chooses to work in. Unlike many of his counterparts in the local art scene who veer toward contemporary modes, Thian’s works harkens back to traditional modes of painting such as Academicism or Classical Realism. There were landscape paintings, still life and even portraiture, something we do not see much of in Singapore (what more from a 25-year-old artist!). Although small in size and collection, each work was charged with much promise and proved to be the culmination of his labour, aspirations and creative energy. Upon closer inspection of his landscape paintings like Sketch of an East Coast Pond (2021) and portraits like Self-Portrait (2020), I could not help but notice how each stroke of paint or carbon on the canvas was so deliberate and well-intentioned, whether it was the shade, direction or intensity. It was almost as if the image in the painting was studied in a formulaic manner before its execution on canvas.

Sketch of an East Coast Pond, 2021, Oil on canvas, 30.5 x 23 cm

Self-Portrait, 2020, graphite on paper, 21.5 x 19 cm

Nonetheless, as Thian would later explain to me, the labels which I had attached to his works do not quite capture his practice because a lot of these genres were derived by art historians to classify the broad periods in art history, which meant that it can be quite reductive. Thian does not want to commit to any of these genres per se but chooses instead to define his art as a “meticulous but spontaneous thing primarily inspired by what I [Thian] see.” In between sips of iced latte, I could not help but bat my eyelids in confusion. What I thought was a discreet manner of expressing my confusion was detected by Thian as he proceeded to clarify:

"A lot of how we navigate the world is through our five senses. When we are moved by something, that first welling of emotion and meaning making is still activated by these five senses. How I see it is that the way I paint is one of the most immediate manner to navigate and engage with that meaning when I see something that moves me."

I was able to comprehend the spontaneity of Thian’s approach with this explanation, but still, I wondered what he meant by “meticulous”. To that, Thian responded, “if you painted in a studied way, you could bring greater clarity to these ideas in an aesthetic manner.” Just as how plot is crucial at conveying meaning in many theatrical productions, Thian likens aesthetics to the way he conveys the meaning of art. Having received formal training in the atelier approach of Western drawing and painting at the Grand Central Atelier in New York, Thian naturally espouses the precise nature of studying the object and its surrounding conditions, like the way the light hits and shadows are cast. Hence, Thian ensures that justice is done to the object in his paintings by capturing each detail precisely so that its Beauty is elevated to the highest level. It is only by combining this pedantic practice together with the spontaneity of capturing that “first welling of emotion” upon seeing an object, that Thian believes is the epitome of the art that he endeavours to create.

A View at Bishan Park, 2021, Oil on canvas panel, 25.5 x 30.5 cm

With all the talk about aesthetics and Beauty in his works, Thian clarifies that Beauty, with a capital “b”, is what he strives to attain instead of simply, beauty. “Artists have always been moved by beautiful settings, beautiful arrangements, and ways people have organised themselves,” he explained. “Beauty” refers to the sense of order and harmony in everything we see around us. This is different from “beauty”, which is superficial (or what we understand things to be beautiful) and changes according to the prevailing standards of the period. The semantic difference between “Beauty” and “beauty” is significant for Thian because the former is both the philosophy and tool to understand our humanity and the world around us.

If the focus of Thian’s artmaking is on the aesthetics, what is the value of art then? “Art for Beauty’s sake maybe?” Thian snickered. “For many art schools, political and social commentary form the main bedrock of what art should be about. But I feel like it shouldn’t be. Artists are critical in a social way, but my concerns are really with the aesthetic.” For someone so measured in his words, this was a bold statement made, especially in an era where the young are increasingly vocal on political issues and getting involved with social change. Yet, such sentiments have been echoed numerous times in the history of the arts. The Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde famously prefaced in his critically acclaimed novel The Picture of Dorian Gray that “all art is quite useless”. What Wilde, a proponent of the Aesthetic Movement in Victorian England, meant was that art is only meant to pleasure its viewers through the beauty it possesses, rather than respond to politics or function as an agent of social change. As we see in The Picture of Dorian Gray (spoiler alert!), the titular character’s eventual physical and moral decline was a result of his obsession over beauty and the relentless pursuit of maximum personal pleasure. This was in line with aesthetic philosophy which prioritised happiness and pleasure of the individual, even at the expense of a moral life.

I am aware that the link between Thian’s fixation on the aesthetic and Beauty in his work to Wilde and Dorian Gray is potentially tenuous. This is not to conclude that he is a hedonist or that his works are products of immorality. In fact, I am quite certain that Thian would not even agree that “all art is useless”. On the contrary, what he has established is that by appreciating the aesthetic and Beauty (order, harmony, and its associated qualities) in art, that is when one can truly understand the value of art. In fact, upholding Beauty is not limited to art because when applied to morality, it encourages us to always choose good.

"The world responds to our choices and if you always choose to do good and strive for Beauty in life, then this overarching order would right itself in response to that. We can poke a hole in reality and access this arrangement of things, which reveals itself in sites of nature or a simple arrangement of light," Thian muses.

Seen in this light, his emphasis on honing his craft and toiling with his tools to uphold Beauty goes beyond his quest to become a better artist. It could also represent his understanding of what it means to be human. Perhaps then, in the thoughtful silences that punctuated our conversation, Thian is upholding Beauty. That with each word he speaks, order and harmony is preserved.

Dominic: Behind the Canvas

Midway through our conversation, Thian suddenly proclaimed, “That’s a nice art studio!” It turned out that he spotted a painting studio in the block situated opposite the café. One might think it is self-explanatory that such a studio would exist within an arts complex but for Thian, it was not so much about the existence of the space but rather its beauty amidst the concrete façade of the building it was in. Just like how he is constantly responding to his environment, I felt that an understanding of the young artist is incomplete without knowing how his environment has moulded him.

For someone with aspirations that fall outside of the conventional narratives in Singapore, the role that the Little Red Dot plays in Thian’s journey as an artist is paradoxical. On the one hand, he admitted that he cannot be divorced from the hyper-pragmatic nature that society has inculcated in him, which was what led him to enrol in the National University of Singapore (NUS) to study Architecture. “It was the closest I could get to anything artistic in Singapore,” Thian revealed with a faint smile across his face. “But what I found was that the drawing of buildings and plans were never driven by pure aesthetics. There’s always a practical mindset.” Unsatisfied with what he was doing, Thian eventually dropped out a year later to enrol in art school instead. It is fair to say that choosing to embark on the road less travelled was possibly the hardest decision he had to make thus far.

"When I left [for art school], I was anxious not because of how difficult it would be, but rather, rejecting the expectations put upon me by society and even myself. I wanted to be this very good Singaporean guy who would do well and support my family. I felt like people would be more satisfied if I led a more normal lifestyle as an architect."

Nonetheless, as much as Thian was not spared by the crippling expectations our society imposes on the young, this culture of uniformity and obsession with order, ironically, fuels his artmaking. Thian explained that the way he paints does not adhere to the “sense of orderliness in Singapore”, but because of this, he is motivated to find “pockets of things in the uniformity that has a lot of character.” These “pockets of things” include nature, people, and intricate items, the latter of which is one category that he loves to paint in his still life.

"It’s a reaction to growing up in a household where every single item has a thought behind it. You can sense when there is a lot of care behind how an object is made."

Thian admits unabashedly that he once picked up an “amazing feather” he spotted on the road even though he did not know which bird it fell off from. As a matter of fact, he is not opposed to picking up items from the dumpster if they were to capture his heart. You can say that the young artist truly lives up to the saying that “one man’s trash is another’s treasure”. As Thian experiences the first stirring in his heart when he sees these ornate items, he endeavours to recreate this reaction for viewers through the still life paintings of these objects. From flowers to vases, milk cups to bottles, the objects might be varied but the experience of viewing stays the same.

Ornamental Jar and White Vase, 2020, Oil on linen, 19 x 29.5 cm

“I know I am going to stay here because I grew up here and lived here,” Thian proclaimed. In spite of the fact that the environment in Singapore might pose roadblocks in his artistic journey, he knows that ultimately, this island-state is still where he calls home. Thian is painfully aware that the journey ahead is fraught with challenges. He credits his parents who unhesitatingly provided him with financial help when he needed it. “The dream to be financially independent for an artist starting out is a little bit dumb,” Thian remarked candidly. “I realised that people in the 20s tend to be very proud if they can say that they are financially independent. However, it is not easy to achieve greatness without parental support.” And this is something that the 25-year-old believes with conviction, so much so that like a sage on stage, albeit a blossoming one, he shared:

"It’s a reaction to growing up in a household where every single item has a thought behind it. You can sense when there is a lot of care behind how an object is made."

Emerging from the high of his successful debut feature, Thian is not about to rest on his laurels. In fact, he had recently acquired a new studio with the earnings from his feature. This represents the next phase of his artistic journey, where he hopes to continue to mature in his practice and achieve financial stability as a career artist. And as we brought an almost three-hour-long conversation to a close, the portrait of Dominic Thian became remarkably clear. The decision to merge his passion with his career might seem momentous then, but at its core, it elucidates what Thian was meant to do; not to impress or make a statement in the canon of Singapore art, or even in art history but to create paintings that elicit something precise within his viewers – a feeling, a thought, a conviction, a purpose, anything at all – and hopefully, this something, is what his viewers will know to be authentic to who they are as a human.


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