I’m sure you’re familiar with the feeling, wanting to reach out and touch a piece of artwork because of its incredible lifelikeness. We’ve all been there. So trust me when I say that I completely understand when your hands start moving towards Keng Lye’s painting of a plump, glistening goldfish in a bowl. But wait; it’s not exactly a two-dimensional painting. Calling it such would be an understatement.
A mix of acrylic paint and resin sculpture, Keng Lye’s hyperreal art occupies a curious space where there’s always more than meets the eye.
Keng Lye at work in his studio
Singaporean Cheok Keng Lye, better known as Keng Lye is no stranger to the world of art and design — he spent 25 years as an art director. After a brief hiatus, he returned to work full-time, this time as an artist specializing in incredibly life-like recreations of marine creatures.
Live Simply by Keng Lye
Impressed by Japanese artist Riusuke Fukahori’s labourious technique of pouring and painting over layers of resin, Keng Lye took it upon himself to master the same technique after a friend challenged him to do so. Each piece of art takes up to 45 days to complete, as he has to pour layer upon layer of resin into a container and waiting for it to harden, before he can paint on it.
Guppy Love by Keng Lye
It was a serendipitous meeting with Singapore-based gallery K+ that brought his work into the limelight. His first exhibition with the curatorial space in 2015 was so successful that he staged a second exhibition, “Creature Comforts”, in 2016. Not one to rest on his laurel, Keng Lye also collaborated with Hong Kong sculptor Johnson Tsang to create two surreal pieces of art.
Bad Hair Day /胡思异想 by Keng Lye and Johnson Tsang
(P.S. Don’t worry. No animals were harmed in the making of Keng Lye’s art, even though many have mistakenly believed him to have encased live creatures in resin!)
KL: When I went to the (art) museum during a school excursion. I don’t remember what art I saw then.
KL: Art is something that fulfills me. It gives me purpose. It is a creative outlet. In short, I really enjoy painting and creating.
KL: I am frequently inspired by Mother Nature’s beauty. I am also nostalgic about my childhood and my memories of the past. I’m not sure about how I “Keep creativity flowing” — it’s not something that one can switch on and off like a light bulb… Hmmm, I suppose one has to keep an open mind and be in a peaceful, and contented state to be able to pick up on moments of inspiration?
KL: Many have commented that my art is very “zen” and conveys a sense of peacefulness. To me, “creature comforts” is about how my artworks can offer (a sense of) peace and tranquility to those who view or own my art — it is about giving them some respite from life’s many challenges.
KL: Overall, my greatest challenge is finding creative painting techniques to make the artwork ‘pop’ and come alive. If I had to choose, I’d say the octopus, especially the first time I attempted it. The idea came to me after watching a food show on TV where the host was in South Korea, eating a live octopus.
Two Sides by Keng Lye
KL: My favourite is the small, reddish/orange fish (the Comet Goldfish). Soon, I’ll start to paint the common ‘longkang’ (Malay for drain or canal) fish that are found in monsoon drains in Singapore. This harks back to my childhood, when I used to play in the drains, trying to catch these small fish.
Lucid Dream by Keng Lye and Johnson Tsang
KL: It was a very good experience! Carolyn Teo of K+ first initiated the idea of collaborating during Johnson Tsang’s exhibition in Singapore. She arranged a meeting and we discussed ideas. Then he went off and created the vessels. When I received Johnson’s finished artworks a few months later, I was so pleased and inspired by them!
Find Joy in Your Life by Keng Lye
KL: I don’t categorise my artworks specifically as hyper-realistic 2D or 3D. My aim is to always create art that is as realistic as possible. So whether I use painting-only, resin sculpture-only or a combination of both, my mission is to make the object standout in a way that is both natural and realistic. I am not sure what is next. All I know is that I will continue to do what I do and push the boundaries as much as possible. I prefer to take it one day at a time and let the artistic side develop. Some things can’t be rushed and you need to let ideas germinate.
This interview has been edited for clarity.