Contemplative, introspective and evocative: Justin Lim on his journey as an artist

Malaysian artist Justin Lim creates art through an observation of the world around him, pop culture and his experience as a musician. photo: YAP CHEE HONG/The Star

At 40, artist Justin Lim has made a significant impact in the world of art, having exhibited his works in South-East Asia and beyond in various solo and group exhibitions, including Art Basel Hong Kong, the Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts and the Asian Art Biennale.

The Kuala Lumpur native’s artistic journey is driven by the power of observation.

“I am constantly observing the world around me, not only visually but also taking in the emotional landscape and the current state of the world,” says Lim.

“All of these things inform how I approach making my works. Vision boards and the execution of the work are all pragmatic and practical parts of the process but it all starts with the observation of myself in relation to the world around me.”

Drawing has always been second nature to Lim, who would spend countless hours on the floor of his parent’s house, left alone with a stack of paper and pencils.

“The first ever actual painting I remember seeing as a child was one of a fishing village painted in the 1970s by Malaysian artist, Chia Yu Chian, and I can remember thinking about how strange and abstract it looked.”

Private Utopia (2020) photo: Richard Koh Fine Art and Justin LimPrivate Utopia (2020) photo: Richard Koh Fine Art and Justin Lim

As a teenager, popular culture in the form of album covers, comic books and films played a pivotal role in shaping his artistic aspirations.

“Some of the earliest ‘artists’ that I admired were the ones whose works graced the album covers for a band called Sonic Youth. Raymond Pettibon, Gerhard Richter, Mike Kelley were really the first ones that I studied and loved,” he says.

An active sessionist drummer and percussionist in the past, Lim’s formative years in music have undeniably had an impact on his artistic expression.

“I learnt a lot from my experience performing with many different musicians and performers. Those years helped to form an outlook in how I approach my life and art,” he says.

Windows to an imaginary reality

A depiction of striking scenes in vivid colours, Lim’s recent works are contemplative and evocative, evoking an array of emotions in the beholder.

One series that stands out is the Sanctuary series, where friends and acquaintances from his personal photographs take centre stage.

Within dreamlike spaces, they are portrayed engaged in their daily activities, poised delicately on the fine line between reality and the imaginary.

Through this collection, Lim explores the trappings of modern society, a response born from the confines of the pandemic-induced lockdowns.

As the world emerged from the Covid-19 pandemic, Lim reflected often upon the time spent under lockdown.

A daydream a day (2022) photo: Richard Koh Fine Art and Justin LimA daydream a day (2022) photo: Richard Koh Fine Art and Justin Lim

“Those strange times spent with myself, and my recent paintings has led me to continually look inwards, to be more aware that one is never really fully in control of one’s life and that the world is constantly in flux and changing rapidly every day.”

His paintings become windows to an imaginary reality, carefully selecting objects and elements as he composed each scene and environment in his works.

A plastic stool, a scrunched-up face mask on a table next to half finished glasses of wine, a “beckoning cat” figurine – these elements and more are featured in his recent works, evoking feelings of familiarity and comfort.

Scenes of the uncertainty, mundanity and boredom brought on by prolonged lockdowns are brought to life in vivid colour through these paintings.

“I select objects and items that to me convey and contribute to a mood of the picture. It is more of a psychological exercise, like a flower arranger or botanist would do to create an arrangement. This ambiguity is what I think about often when I make paintings,” he explains.

“It allows me this space to ponder, to look inward hopefully to arrive at some state of resolution and to make sense of my place in the modern world. If anything, I find myself always in pursuit of a feeling.

“In a world that is always on the move, we keep forgetting to at times detach ourselves from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and to just sit down, contemplate and dream a little. I want my paintings to provide a platform for me to achieve that.”

Other paintings, installations and mixed media works produced throughout his years in the world of art take on different tones, inspired by pop culture, comics and his situation at the time.

The observatory (2021) photo: Richard Koh Fine Art and Justin LimThe observatory (2021) photo: Richard Koh Fine Art and Justin Lim

An ever-evolving landscape

Lim says his artistic style is evolving, but while the visual subjects and stylistic elements may change, the core essence remains constant.

“We are all constantly shifting our perspectives as we grow older and hopefully form new realisations. I guess in some way, the works are documenting this evolution and various states of being. I definitely try not to overthink it as much as when I was first starting out,” he says.

Collaborating closely with Richard Koh Fine Art, his trusted gallerist for over 12 years, he is currently focusing on upcoming exhibitions and programs, including a solo exhibition during Art Basel week in Hong Kong for 2024.Rather than fixating on long-term goals, he embraces the present, taking each day as it comes and fully immersing himself in his work.

With an unwavering dedication to his craft, Lim is poised to continue making a significant impact in the art world.

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