Some artists create because they have a message they wish to share. Whether received through divine revelation, personal experience or hard-earned study, this message is the creative force driving the artist. Veteran artist Datuk Tang Hon Yin, however, is not one of those them.
While some other artists value themes and expression, this Penang-based painter values ambiguity instead. He’s happiest if the impressions you get from his art are different from everyone else.
“I would hope that, if 10 different people looked at my work, I would get 10 different opinions. If I got everything the same, then something is wrong,” says Tang, 75, with a laugh, during a recent interview.
Art lovers can view Tang’s artworks and draw conclusions for themselves at Silk Road, an exhibition currently showing at the Suma Orientalis gallery in Petaling Jaya. Silk Road features 26 of the artist’s abstract works (spanning 2006 to 2018) and is his first solo exhibition in Kuala Lumpur in 32 years.
His body of work is certainly emotive and striking. Tang, a self-taught artist, obtained an honours in geography in 1967 and a diploma in education in 1968 from Universiti Malaya.
“Like everyone else, I just completed the highest education I could, and went about earning a living. This did not prevent me from developing my love for art and producing art,” says Tang.
“I have always held the view that one can still pursue one’s love for art while doing something else for a living. Sure it is always good to have formal instruction in art history, art making and so on. But I have never relished the idea of depending on art to put food on the table.”
Tang was a teacher and later an education administrator, retiring in 1998 as the Director of Education in Penang.
Through his long career, Tang always made time for art. He curated the Gelombang exhibition for Latiff Mohidin at the Penang Museum and Art Gallery in 1990. He also had two stints as the chairman of the state gallery – 1994-1997 and 2006-2015.
As an artist, he has had four solo exhibitions and participated in over 50 group shows.
On canvas, Tang is known for his tactility, signature style crinkling effects and the use of the air brush. American painters Richard Diebenkorn and Mark Rothko were inspirations to him in the early days.
Tang’s works have been exhibited in places like the Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena, California (1988), Yokohama Shimin Gallery, Kanagawa, Japan (1999), and the Capital Normal University, Beijing (2006). In 1978-1991, he was also actively showing with the Utara Art Group, alongside names such as Khoo Sui Hoe and Sharifah Fatimah Zubir. You can find his works in the collections of National Visual Arts Gallery, Galeri Petronas and Bank Negara Malaysia Museum and Art Gallery.
In his latest exhibition Silk Road, Tang feels it is left to the viewers to find their way through the muted hues and crumpled textures, and lose themselves in an artistic voyage of their own.
Tang visited the Silk Road in China in 2006. However, this show is not completely based on his travels there. He had started on many of his works before his trip there. The title was just chosen as it was “sufficiently ambiguous”.
“My wife and me are geographers, so it may be possible that some physical features from what we saw made their way into the artworks. And while they may appear to the people who look at them, I prefer that they go on an emotional journey instead,” says Tang.
Part of his artistic process, he mentions, involves embarking on adventures and trips without much planning.
“I do not have a sketch book. I am not trying to reproduce anything I’ve seen. Much of my inspiration comes from the window of a plane or a coach. Sometimes two or three colours I see make an impression on me. The colours play and replay in my mind and I want this to find expression on the canvas,” he explains.
Spontaneity is a crucial part of his artistic background.
“I may start painting, not quite knowing where it would lead me. I allow one painting episode to lead me to the next, solving problems along the way. When I’m finally done I may find that the painting has come out very different from the original idea I had when I started to paint. I’m happy because I can start again to pursue the original idea.”
Despite having long retired, Tang still keeps himself active now, spending most of his days painting. He is also preparing for an upcoming retrospective of his work at the Penang Museum & Art Gallery in November.
“I don’t see myself slowing down or stopping, health permitting. Painting is partly intellectual, physical as well as emotional. So I think there is no place for retirement for something that takes care of you intellectually, physically and emotionally,” says Tang.
“I always believe my best work is yet to come. And I shall continue to seek to produce that work.”