I cannot remember exactly when I was first captivated by the art of Justin Lee. With my background in advertising and media, I am naturally drawn to art that has a conceptual approach. Justin’s concepts are instinctive and organic to his art; they are bold, in-your-face, and contemporary. The East-West sensibility in his work is obvious; his West has a show biz slant, his East is more Chinese than Asian. In the last ten years, I have been producing movies and collecting Chinese contemporary art. Which is why, I think, his art talks to me.
Singapore is a predominantly Chinese city. It is also the most Westernised city in Asia. Justin is perhaps the first local artist to fuse Western pop and Chinese traditional cultures to create big concepts that are hip and relatable, like the ‘Absolute Vodka’ and Guinness’ ‘Are You Afraid Of The Dark’ campaigns. While some contemporary artists in China are forcing Western elements into their art, Justin’s signature styles of integrating American icons with Chinese symbols are seamless and almost matter-of-fact.
I have been attracted to the strong charcoal strokes of Jimmy Ong. He is Justin’s predecessor. In Justin, I find a depth that speaks to a new generation. He speaks in primary colours. In a wacky, sometimes frivolous way. From this dimension, you can encounter his irreverence. No subject matter is sacred or off-limits. The use of the Chinese word, Double Happiness, to form images as diverse as the head-gear of a samsui woman and the Singapore flag, is at once traditional and modern, old and new, conservative and out-there. This paper-cut look of Double Happiness would go on to grace a cross, a coke can, Wonder Woman, Incredible Hulk, Elmo, beauty queens and media personalities.
As an artist, Justin has expressed himself in ‘Uniquely Singapore’ ways. This, I think, is his essence. And his prominence. Only when an artist is true to his roots, when he is not ashamed of his true colours, can he shine through with his special brand of honesty. Much like speaking Singlish. Not for effect. For authenticity. Justin is a product of his time. In a ‘rojak’ culture, a mishmash of ethnicity, Justin is not embarrassed by cultural kitsch or seemingly unmatched subjects. The result is a body of work that shows a thinking pop artist taking the bull by its horn; a realist observing life in the lion city with the dare of a tiger. His work is stark and from within his art he speaks out.
Justin is collected by people of all nationalities. His sell-out exhibitions are a sign of a growing acceptance and appeal of Singaporean artists, and a younger collecting base. When I asked him why his art is more Chinese, he replied, “Singapore has no clear cultural references yet. So I have to go inside myself. I am Chinese, so my art is more Chinese.” His popularity is double-edge. His most troubled period is also his most marketable as an artist. “When you cannot be true to yourself, when you start thinking of what the market wants, you will lose your artistic cachet” he said.
He was most inspired after visiting New York in 2000. “Why are all the great contemporary artists from the West?” he asked. He came back to Singapore and launched a made-in-Singapore artistic career with an international outlook. His works have adorned the Majestic Hotel, the Esplanade and the Singapore Art Museum. He has ben commissioned by international brands like Mont Blanc. Recently one of his designs was used for a first day cover of stamps to commemorate the 50th anniversary of EDB.
Justin is a positive and happy artist. His work does not judge the pervasive influences of the West in our everyday life. He does not see life as what it should be, but what it is. So the Double Happiness motif symbolises almost a happy marriage of East and West, a celebration of our diversity and our ability to assimilate. When I started collecting Justin, I have already missed out on some of his most iconic works. But he is still a young artist, mid-way on his artistic journey.
To push the limits of his art, Justin is now reaching more into himself. He believes art plays a big role in the social construct of a nation, so it is imperative for him to reach out to young people who are the future of every nation. He is travelling more to China, the fastest developing country. He is doing more installation and performance art, as a multi-disciplinary artist should. I asked him if there was a medium he would specialize in. He said, “the medium that best express what is in my heart”.