In Conversation with Sherman Mern Tat Sam, June/July 2020

GL: Working on the exhibition, I keep returning to a line by Barry Schwabsky that you quoted in your essay ‘How abstraction can improve your life’ (2013): “Abstractionists, like atheists, are united only in what they reject.” How did you come to abstraction as an artist? What did you have to reject? I imagine it couldn’t have been easy for an artist from Singapore to be living and painting abstractly in a place like London in the 1990s.

SS: Second part first: I went from Singapore to London, via Oxford, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Paris (going backwards in time). I didn’t intend to be a wanderer, but somehow that wandering seed got planted early on.  But yes, the English art world is a very figurative and verbal one. So to be an abstractionist here is quite odd… especially during the time when I first pitched up. That is not to say that there weren’t abstractionists, but they fit within a certain narrative. The internationalisation of the London scene in the last two decades has diversified the situation a little… just a little(!). Having said that, I think right now, worldwide, there is a fashion for representation in the broadest sense of the term. So in a sense we abstractionists are swimming against the tide. Resistance… I like that!

First, I wanted purity, which meant rejecting everything. Then I realised there is nothing much left to say or do with emptying out, and that took me to impurity, which meant letting everything back in. The art school I went to, Otis, you sort of had to work through different modes: sculpture, painting, drawing, performance etc., but also different ideas of art- making/thinking. Think of it as acting as a different kind of artist each time round, adjusting your mindset so to speak. Bear in mind that in America, culturally for painting, that was the moment of Neo-expressionism (artists like Schnabel, Salle, Cucchi etc.). It was when I got to abstraction that I felt I stumbled onto something deeper: impure purity, pure impurity, wandering drifting, without specificity. Certainty seems so boring…


GL: I’m looking at the titles for your paintings – see which the wind blows, do the same again, nothing in return, only move to the beat… etc. Some of them are quite instructional, almost like you are describing an internal logic or a list of guiding principles for painting. How do you come up with these titles and are there certain rules you follow in your painting process?

[From left to right] see which the wind blows (2020); do the same again (2016); only move to the beat (2020), oil on panel, varying dimensions. Photos courtesy of STPI.

SS: I like that you think they might be guiding principles! Maybe I should make a treatise out of them. As you know, I take my titles from song lyrics. They are perfectly written sentences already in the world, so why not use them. I try to find lines that don’t have pictorial/figurative references so the viewer will not be tempted to look for “staircases” or “heaven”, or “Pale Blue Eyes” for example, and also “me”, “I” or “you”. They are not always the entire sentence either. The first reason is that I did not want to have “untitled” followed by a number. Also I like the fact that the songs themselves bring along a life and history. For example, do the same again comes from an Abba song, “Fernando”, or found the world so new from an Avalanches song, “Since I Left You”. You bring your own personal history with those tunes. The titles are readymades so to speak.

Maybe it is because there are less points of figurative reference that you find they refer internally to the canvas. If anything, it is the other way around – the logic of the painting is the guiding principle for the name; the naming happens long after the painting is completed, when it goes to a show or when it is photographed. Also there is no correlation between music and making, and very few of the paintings are related to their titles in this specific way. There are a few Lou Reed lyrics, those paintings were named around the time he died. Two works take lines from my friend Tom Nozkowski’s playlist, they are dedicated to him. One, Ca plane pour moi, a fun Belgium punk song by Plastic Bertrand, got its name because it was a phrase I really wanted to use and a good French friend liked that painting as well. So they can be very arbitrary connections, but those arbitrary connections are just what makes art rich!


GL: A curator once asked me ‘what does a good composition do?’. Perhaps it was a strange turn of phrase but I kept thinking about what that question meant through its variations – ‘what makes a good composition?’,  ‘what can a good composition do (for us)?’, ‘what will we do for a good composition?’… etc. Looking at your paintings is like asking those questions all at once! (How) are you looking for a ‘good composition’?

SS: Do people even know what composition means anymore? Do we even talk about composition at all? Can we still see it? The answer is I feel my way into it. Actually, mostly I stumble into it. I don’t think my mind’s eye and my hands are in sync. This is a good question, and I’ll take that as a complement! I recently got some visitors not to read up on my work beforehand – I thought that they should feel their way into seeing my work because that is precisely how they are made. I think abstract expressionism changed the idea of and possibilities for composition. It expanded the idea of painting, the result is that painting went down a different route. The Germans, Richter, Polke and Kippenberger added another layer.

When I was a student we were kind of interested in ideas of bad painting. Badness in general is always seductive. It always veered towards ideas of kitsch and tastelessness, but maybe bad composition could be considered an aspect of bad painting. Ultimately, to quote Susan Frecon, “the work comes from the work”. In our moment, a lot of art is made from outside the work, that is the “idea” determines the artwork, the “about”, so there is an external reference or control. In a sense I respond to what is happening within the work. Do I compose, yes, I suppose. But everyone does. Does good composition lead to good painting? Then you first have to answer what is good painting. Not only that, but I think the idea of good painting changes from era to era… otherwise all our museums wouldn’t be filled with art we don’t care for anymore. I think viewers are conditioned to see in certain ways, to see (or read) certain things, so good composition makes you question, maybe they pose unpredictable “solutions”.


GL: Alongside your paintings, you also have a large collection of drawings. Unlike the paintings, which are often dense and layered, the drawings are quite sparse, almost skeletal. Are they sketches for the paintings, or do you consider them as works in themselves? Do you approach them differently?

[From left to right] SS20-0011 (2020); SS20-0012 (2017); SS20-0013 (2016), graphite and gouache on paper, varying dimensions. Photos courtesy of STPI.

SS: I began to really make drawings when I arrived in London. Before that they were really drawings after paintings. I didn’t have a studio for 2 years, so my landlady suggested that I had to find another way to make art. The result was kitchen table drawings. When I finally returned to painting, they were different. So you could say the drawings are now in advance of the paintings. I see them as a parallel process, rather than, say, being studies or preparatory sketches (even if they look sketchy). They evolve in a similar way to the paintings, over time and worked over repeatedly. I like to say that all my work follows, or is determined by, motions of the hand (or arm). They are both things-in-the-world, that is they are art objects, they attack/confront/contradict their nature as objects as much as they perform as artworks.

The drawings are cut down from larger sheets of paper (note: this is before I draw on them), and as the process goes along I may also cut out bits of the drawing. Likewise the paintings are cut from sheets of plywood, so I cut the shapes first. In a sense, things begin with the shape of the surface (be it paper or wood). They are rectangular, but not perfect right angles. Then the work begins. I don’t think of the drawings as being skeletal, they are certainly worked on as many times as the paintings. However the marks disappear with erasure, I guess that does not happen with the painting, and they have become more spare recently, whereas in painting, overpainting tends to leave more traces. The more recent paintings that are currently in progress are sparer, or at least leave behind more empty space. So in that way I think the drawings are more advanced in their thinking. In the last decade I began to travel more, so they have moved from being kitchen table drawings to hotel room drawings.


GL: You make these paintings at home, often spending long periods of time on each work. There are paintings here that you’ve started years ago, paused and returned to repeatedly. Looking around your studio, I have a sense of time that is disjointed and fluid, but this is also set against the backdrop of your kitchen and other living areas. How is painterly time different for you compared to a more daily experience of time?

SS: Ah… good question. I live where I work, I live my work. Actually I like to say I grow my work. My viewing space becomes a yoga space, I switch bedrooms, I have a summer layout and a winter layout for my living/working space. Fluidity is a daily part of life. I do think that life itself is in constant flux but as humans I think we seek/desire permanence. In the last few years I have talked/thought about the idea of time in my work, maybe the conversation should be about fluidity instead. You could say that each work holds a record of touches, and different groups of marks/areas come from different moments… so instead of moments we can say disruptions.

This is not to say that time is the emphasis. I am slow. It takes time to come to decisions. But also I like to take long periods between actions because I think it creates openings for new ideas and possibilities to arrive, rather than acting immediately on how the mind thinks the work should appear. When you have works in the studio that have sat around for some years, cross-pollination also happens. “Solutions”, “moments” or “actions” jump between works that are years apart. The beginnings of one work could be endings for another. De Kooning famously said that “Content is a glimpse”. “Content, if you want to say, is a glimpse of something, an encounter, you know, like a flash – it’s very tiny, very tiny, content.” Now, was he talking about glimpsing or seeing, or about “content” itself? I sometimes think you catch glimpses of things in life and in art. That’s why I like the waiting; waiting for that glimpse of something.


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