Cover Second-generation Singaporean artist and Cultural Medallion recipient Goh Beng Kwan

Cultural Medallion recipient Goh Beng Kwan takes over an entire floor at Conrad Centennial Singapore for his first retrospective show, '#GBK85', featuring 85 artworks across traditional and digital mediums, spanning his illustrious 60-year career

When Goh Beng Kwan turned 60 in 1997, someone suggested that he stage a retrospective exhibition of his works. But the second-generation Singaporean artist thought, “I was too young”. Now, 25 years later, “I think I’m ready. I’ve worked every year and accumulated many new and old works, so now is a good time for me to do so”.

The Medan-born Goh, who turns 85 in December, has dedicated his life to art, and #GBK85 is a comprehensive solo exhibition of works produced throughout his illustrious 60-year career. Featuring 85 of his original artworks organised by period, from his early works (1950s to ’70s) to those produced during the Covid-19 pandemic, the exhibition is held across an entire floor of Conrad Centennial Singapore until May 29.

In a bid to reach out to new audiences and inspire younger generations, the show also includes 11 augmented reality (AR) works, a medium uncommon among local artists of his generation. Visitors can view the works through a mobile application developed by art platform ArtAF, which is founded by his daughter Hazeleen Goh. Both father and daughter spent the past two years working on a digital inventory system of his artworks, alongside other archival materials such as newspaper clippings and videos.

In case you missed it: “I Hope My Art Can Inspire a New Generation to Treasure Their Past”: 100-Year-Old Artist Lim Tze Peng on His Artistic Journey

Goh has also taken to embracing new technology, with his NFT artworks minted as tokens of appreciation for guests of National Gallery Singapore’s fundraiser, Gallery Benefit, in January this year. He even has his own accounts on Instagram, and TikTok—even though he has yet to make his own videos.

“In my generation, everything seemed so easy. Today, everyone is so immersed in technology. Everybody looks at their computers, tablets and smartphone everyday—this is daily life. So for artists, we have to keep up with the times if we want our work to reach new audiences, especially the younger generation,” he opines. 

Don't miss: Portrait of an Artist: Speak Cryptic on How NFTs Transformed His Art Practice

Goh’s interest in art developed in the 1950s at Hwa Chong High School under pioneer artist Chen Wen Hsi, from whom he learned the basics of drawing and painting during weekly art classes. His works were often held up as outstanding examples to his fellow students, so much so that he was invited to Chen’s house on the weekends for more instruction.

Despite this, it was surprising that Goh failed art in the final examination. As it turned out, he was already ahead of his time. While his peers did still life, he was already exploring abstract art. He later travelled to New York to further his arts education at Arts Students League of New York.

“America really opened my eyes. For a young boy like me to go to a big city, it was really an opportunity to learn. So every day after school, I would visit the museums, including the Metropolitan Museum Of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum,” shares Goh. “Even when you walk down Fifth Avenue, you can learn a lot from the window displays of stores such as Tiffany & Co.”

He later held his first solo exhibition at the Ruth Sherman Gallery in New York in 1965.

Read more: Why This Couple’s Art Collection Consists of Paintings by Pioneering Singapore Artists

The turning point in his career as a full-time artist came was when he won the first UOB Painting of the Year in 1982 with his work, The Dune. “It gave me the recognition and confidence to become a full-time artist,” he says.

He was later awarded the Cultural Medallion in 1989, and many of his works can be seen around Singapore at such locations such as Farrer Park Hospital and Conrad Centennial Singapore.

Taking inspiration from his travels and his surroundings, Goh is renowned for his bold, innovative work as a collage artist, whose mixed media art were experiments of various mediums such as Chinese ink, acrylic paint and watercolour, as well as tapestry, paper pulp and even ceramic paintings.

“A lot of people say that my father is very a ‘feelings’ artist,” shares Hazeleen. “He paints based on his feelings. If you notice, his earlier works from when he was a student in New York—and didn’t have much money—are much darker with a muted palette, and not as bright as his newer works where he’s much happier. But during the Covid-19 pandemic, you see the colours used are very dark, reflecting feelings of stress and fear. My father wanted to record these emotions through his works.”

In case you missed it: Cheong Soo Pieng: 4 Things to Know About the Singapore Pioneer Artist and His Ink Paintings

Goh is a passionate advocate of the therapeutic benefits of art in supporting mental wellbeing, so part of the proceeds from the tickets sold for the exhibition will be donated to the Singapore Association for Mental Health.

While he considers this retrospective as one of the milestones of his career, Goh is not resting on his laurels. He hopes to return to New York for another solo show, and hopefully stage an exhibition in China.

Both father and daughter also have more ideas up their sleeves, including one involving senior and young artists creating traditional and digital art. Goh also hope to do a series on Japan’s Mount Fuji, which he visited before the pandemic and is compelled to return once borders open.

Read more: Change Agents: Social Artist Duo Hunny and Lummy Discuss Mental Health Issues in Their Art

#GBK85 runs until May 29, at  Conrad Centennial Singapore.

© 2022 Tatler Asia Limited. All rights reserved.