Born in Ipoh, Malaysia, to an English father and Chinese mother, Philip Hemnell has always been about bridging seemingly opposite realms. Now based in Penang, this Eurasian artist continues to appropriate cartoon imagery from Western comics and Japanese manga, and melds mediums like painting, stenciling, photography and traditional printmaking into approachable yet arresting art pieces.
Philip’s solo exhibition, REIMAGINING, at SPRMRKT explores Singapore’s increasing diversity and openness. Having lived in Singapore for 18 years over two stints, he has observed the city’s cultural and social progression since the conservative 1980s. The exhibition celebrates the shifting attitudes with a tongue-in-cheek reimagining of 1940s and 1950s cartoon images with subject matters that old cartoonists would never have thought of. Co-presented with Galerie Steph, this exhibition marks a milestone in SPRMRKT’s calendar of exhibitions.
S: This exhibition marks a milestone in SPRMRKT’s archive of exhibitions because we’re featuring a corporate banker-turned-professional artist for the first time. What do you think of art displayed outside of the usual gallery setting?
I am all for showing art in all sorts of venues – showing art in only Museums and Galleries is far too limiting as it partly restricts the accessibility. I think art should be appreciated by people from all walks of life and showing art in a restaurant setting such as SPRMRKT increases the exposure of my art to people whom may not have necessarily seen it before. Some of my favourite art in the past was done on the streets of New York by fledgling artists that went on to become famous like Shepard Fairey and Faile.
S: At REIMAGINING, we’re quickly reminded of the famous American pop artist Roy Lichtenstein but upon second glance, this series contextually portrays a more striking image. Was this double take done on purpose?
Roy Lichtenstein has always been a strong inspiration in my work. Like many people I looked at his art work and thought that I could do that. In reality when I started to mimic his art on a large scale I realized how incredibly difficult it was to reproduce his consistent colors. Also I did not understand the thought process that went behind his work until I saw an incredibly show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York called “High and Low” which delved into the background of Pop artists and their appropriation of every day objects and other sources of material such as advertising and comics. This exhibition argued the validity of the genre as a legitimate seriously thought out art form.
I could see why old comics were such a rich source material for Lichtenstein’s work , but I felt they were consistently sexist in their covers. There was always a dominant man and a subservient woman. I thought that removing one of the characters and replacing them with one of the opposite sex would be an interesting subject. So I stated taking out the dominant man and replacing him with a dominant woman and this continued to the many other combinations in my paintings . My paintings still embrace the naivety of the 1940’s comic books in terms of style and that’s why when people look at them initially they do not necessarily realize what I have done in terms of gender switching.
S: Tell us more about your sources of inspiration for this series.
I am inspired by some many influences – I happen to live in Penang where I am surrounded by culture (Georgetown Festival) and other artists. But for me the single biggest inspiration or facilitator has been the internet. Comics both traditional western comics and Asian/Japanese Manga have always featured heavily in my art works. In the 1990’s when I was living and painting in NY I would have to buy whole comics or trade paper backs just to find one picture that I liked – for Manga I would even buy the production animation stills. That proved to be a very expensive proposition but now with the internet I can find source material from every part of the world in an instant – so I can source comics for instance from Mexico to India. In fact there is too much source material out there so I tend to focus on trashy 1930-1950 US romantic comic books.
S: This year’s annual rally for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LBGT) group, Pink Dot, had the best turn out since it’s debut. Did you go? What effect do you think this will have for art and censorship in Singapore?
I was in Penang when it was held at Hong Lim Park this year – I am always heartened to see that each year it gets bigger and bigger and the turn out now includes many families and straight people too. My art does not specifically advocate an alternative lifestyle it is supposed to be visually interesting and entertaining.
I was always brought up in an environment that encouraged acceptance of alternative lifestyles – my tutor when I was 5 years old in Ipoh was openly gay, his partner was euphemistically called his house boy but even then I knew that this man was my tutor’s partner and my parents had absolutely no problem with his life choices as he was a great tutor. I think official Singapore is becoming more tolerant as long as the change is gradual. The best we can hope for is incremental reform. I had the pleasure of meeting Ivan Heng and Tony Trickett this year in Penang just after their wedding in London – the fact that the wedding was reported in all the newspapers in Singapore is the best indication that tolerance is on the rise.
S: Back to your development as a professional artist, how did you get from banking to art and how did you hone your artistic skills to get where you are today? What were some of the challenges you faced?
Art was always a major part of my life – I have been collecting art since my teenage years . My first paintings I acquired were always of life in Malaysia as they came with me to UK where I was at school and University as a reminder of home. I still have many of those original pictures but my collection has grown to over 500 pieces now and are much more diverse. In terms of actually creating art I always did so throughout my career but it really accelerated when I left Singapore to move to New York in 1989. Here I was exposed to not only the best Institutional art and galleries in the world but an amazing underground of graffiti art on the streets and in the clubs I used to frequent. Most importantly painting gave me a way to relax and de-stress from working in Wall Street. During the 1990’s I was doing art purely for my friends, clients and myself – I never sold a piece and never accepted a payment for any art work as they were always gifts. During this time I gave away over 150 pictures and paintings and my pictures are in collections from Los Angeles to Tokyo.
My greatest challenge in creating art is my impatience. I have found over the years the longer I work on an art work the worse is the end result. My best art work is one that flows on the canvas quickly. To me there are three stages to my work – the act of creation of the picture in the digital realm, the physical transfer of the image to the canvas (my digital creations and paintings can be quite different) and then the final painting of the image. Now with my computer I can play with many different images and manipulate them digitally till I get the ones I want to actually paint. For Reimagining I created close to 50 compositions from which the 8 pictures for the show were derived
S: Do you think everyone has an intrinsic artistic side to their personality?
Absolutely I think that every person has a creative side to their personality – I think that many people choose to subdue it and claim not to be artistic. I have seen that many times in Art Jams where people come together to paint in a social environment – I have seem some pretty amazing art works emerge from these evenings. I hope people see my art and think “I can do that” and go out and actually do it.
S: You’re now residing in Penang where much attention has been placed on the eye-catching graffiti art on the walls off public sidewalks and in DRIVE, upcoming 4-month long public art project at the GIllman Baracks, we sneaked a preview of you creating art on walls with a “public weapon”. Do you think graffiti art is popular in Singapore for the wrong reasons?
As a case study Penang Street art has been a magnet for tourists to the Georgetown Unesco Heritage district but there has been such a proliferation of art on walls that the Penang State Government has set up a committee to oversee the artistic merit of the existing art and future wall interventions. I can understand both sides as many landowners do not appreciate their pristine white walls covered in art but street art by its very nature is supposed to be spontaneous and a bit subversive.
The work I did for Drive is actually a precursor to their competition – I think of my mural as a trailer to encourage Singaporeans to submit proposals to Drive to paint on Gillman Barracks walls. I want to see all the murals being done by locals because I hope that this will encourage more Singaporeans to go to Gillman as it’s an amazing resource of Global Galleries.
I think that graffiti art is popular here as Singapore is considered one of the best Graffiti Nations in the world as there are so many talented young artists here. That’s part of the reason I do so many stencils on canvas because I can’t paint on the walls here (that is why I jumped at the chance to participate in Drive at Gillman Barracks) . In 2014 artists from Singapore participated in graffitti festivals from Mongolia to London – but the most amazing manifestation of the incredible local talent on offer in Singapore was the “Urban Is Me” takeover of Eminent Plaza. This building in Lavender is scheduled to be demolished but in a fit of amazing brilliance it was turned over to curators to showcase art and music. The graffiti that emerged from this show both on the outside and on the floor and walls of the whole building was world class.
S: What can we expect to see at DRIVE?
Existing art works by myself, Dawn Ng, Maryanto, Wong Lip Chin – I hope people will go down and have a look
S: Last but not least, Malaysia or Singapore’s char kway teow? :)
I lived in Singapore in the 1980’s and there was a char kway teow seller in Jurong who cooked on a charcoal fire bent over his wok – he was all ready in his 70’s in 1985 so I must presume he has passed away now. His was my all time “best I have ever had” char kway teow as he used lots of deep fried pork fat.
Now my favorite is my local woman in Tanjong Bungah who fries to my specifications – so without prawns and blood cockles. She fries over a charcoal fire and every time with extra chinese sausage and a ducks egg.