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Jeremy Sharma (Part 2), in Conversation with Marjorie Chu

Check out Part 1 of our Pow-wow with Jeremy Sharma here.

In this instalment, we explore the easy friendship between gallerist Marjorie Chu and Jeremy, at Marjorie’s beautiful shophouse space, Art Forum. Marjorie’s presently running a showcase of Jeremy’s early work entitled Jeremy Sharma : The First Seven Years. 

If you have a bit of time, here’s a lovely little introductory video, courtesy of Art Forum.

Marjorie and Jeremy first met at a LASALLE College of the Arts exhibition in the early noughties. She was particularly drawn to his early works which were rendered in shoe polish :

Jeremy Sharma, The First Seven Years, shoe-polish
Jeremy Sharma, The First Seven Years, shoe-polish
Jeremy Sharma, The First Seven Years, shoe-polish

In this Pow-wow, “P” is for Plural, “MC” for Marjorie Chu and “JS” for Jeremy Sharma.

P: Marjorie, what drew you to Jeremy’s shoe polish works?

MC: When [one] walks into any group of people or selection of beautiful items, [one] sometimes zeroes in on something, just by a magnetic influence. I cannot explain what it is. I am not an art historian nor am I a curator. I am not trained, except that I happen to have a pair of eyes, and so I just walked straight to the work. I didn’t know who the artist was. I didn’t even know it was a painting made of shoe polish.

In all the excitement, I didn’t analyse it. People do, but I don’t. It was just attractive work.

P: Jeremy, would you like to tell us about the shoe polish works from your perspective? These were after all, the works that started off your relationship with Marjorie.

JS: Actually, I was just thinking about it, and it wasn’t the LASALLE graduation show where [Marjorie] first met me, it was actually the LASALLE school show. This was a show where all the alumni from LASALLE were showcased. My graduation works were actually quite different, although some of them were shoe polish works as well. I remember Eugene Tan who was the gallery director of the [Institute of Contemporary Arts] then, speaking to you Marjorie, and then he sent you over to me. This was the first time I met you.

MC: It was all a blur!

P: Was this the first time a gallerist had expressed interest in your work, Jeremy?

JS: Yes, I think Marjorie was one of the first gallerists to pick up my works.

P: How did you feel? Did you think “Oh yes, it’s about time that someone recognizes my genius!” Or did you feel really surprised that someone would think your work was great?

JS:  I wasn’t very confident at the time, I just thought something like, “yes ok, that’s nice!” I mean Marjorie looks very important and distinguished. I thought it must be quite good that someone like her picked up my work, and I thought that I [would have] some money.

I was quite intimidated by Marjorie because she looked quite stern and distinguished.

MC:  You know, everybody says that and I am not at all, now that you know me!

Jeremy with Marjorie

JS:  It was a nice feeling to meet someone who appreciated what we were doing.

MC:  That feeling to me, [was] the most important thing. Everything else, like who the artist was, why the show was up – none of that was important. It was the work that attracted me, I don’t even remember being introduced to the artist- it was all about that work. It was only much later that I realized the [material] used was shoe polish.

P:  So what prompted you, Jeremy, to work with shoe polish as a medium?

JS:  For economical reasons! The work you are referring to, is actually something that was done to cover up a previous work. I had really recycled the previous work. It so happened that I was very frustrated over what I was doing. I wanted to make a new work but I didn’t have enough cash in hand to buy a new canvas, so I recycled my older work. I guess it brought me some good luck in doing that!

The work then became very monochromatic and abstract. I remember submitting the work for [the Phillip Morris Singapore Arts Awards], it was then one of the premier art awards, [and the work] made it to the finals.

I was working with shoe polish because it reminded me of oil paint and I liked that no-fuss and no- frills way of working with a medium. There was no colour in it, so [I] could produce a variety of tones, and yet it was very unconventional, because it was not a staple art material that could have been bought from an art store like Artfriend. I also liked it because I had it in the dozens, from my army days. And I remember specifically when I was collecting my army boots, that the texture of the polish reminded me of wax.

In the army you can actually be quite brain – dead, you just think of getting through the drills and then you go to sleep. I was actually dreaming of the shoe polish, and I thought that one day, if I couldn’t use oil paints, I would use [the polish]. I experimented on paper, and it worked very well on smooth paper, as when you rub it away, it leaves a stain. The stain can be yellowish, or bluish sometimes, it’s beautiful.

P:  Let’s talk a bit about your relationship with Marjorie. What was that like in the early years? Marjorie  supported your practice in the early years, but did she give you any suggestions on the kinds of works you should make?

JS:  She never really interfered with my work or processes. She trusted me. She would advise me on certain things like presentation after the work was done, but she didn’t really interfere.

Marjorie really was an early benefactor of my practice, she supported me when I needed support, she’s really like my Peggy Guggenheim.

P:  That’s high praise!

JS:  She was the only one who actually gave me money to work, and then she bought my works when I started to make works. I’ve never had any arrangement like that before. I think when an artist has funds like that, it gives them much more freedom, rather than having to think about where to get their next paycheck to pay the bills. Back then, I wasn’t working full- time, I was freelancing and painting from my apartment in East Coast. They were fun times, but with a lot of frustration as well.

MC:  Going back to the artists, I think money is very important. So I would buy works and of course I would put them up for sale. But, I would tell the artists not to think that I was doing it to make a profit. I was buying the works so they would have some money to live [off]. I mean look, I still have these works after so many years – it can’t be because of profit!

P: Did you do this with other artists?

MC: Yes, I did this with Chua Ek Kay also. Not every artist is successful from the beginning and I [never look] for an artist who is going to be successful, some may never be. The way these artists then go on to grow, that has nothing to do with me. All I  can do is nurture them to the point where they can start to grow.

P: Is this something that you do for the broader public good? Like a form of philanthropy?

MC: [laughs] Well, I am also a gallerist and I need to make my money. Sometimes I also don’t understand what it is that I do!

P:  So, how many years do these works go back?

MC: From 2003 to 2011.

P:  And what is your relationship like now? Have you always been in constant touch?

JS:  The relationship is more mature now. Once in a while, Marjorie  will invite me out for meals with collectors.

MC: I will attend his shows. The reason why I thought about doing [a] show now, is because it is the right time to consider the past, the present and now, the future [of Jeremy’s practice]. I always feel that collectors need to learn how his works began – it is very important to see the [artistic] chronology.

P: When you were planning this show, were you aware of any other shows of Jeremy’s that are coming up? Was it part of a broader strategy to showcase his works at this particular time?

JS: [laughs] Nothing was strategized!

P: Jeremy, how do you think these works fit in with what you’re doing right now? If someone came to look at this show at Art Forum without knowing what your practice was about, and then maybe came to a show of more recent works at Sullivan + Strumpf, how would you frame this show?

MC: [laughs] I can tell you what his answer is! It is “you go ask Marjorie.”

JS: I think these [Art Forum] works reflect a different time in my life. It was about how I looked at surfaces. You can also see a trajectory of how my works have become increasingly monochromatic. Initially, you can see that my works were much busier and more frantic, with lots of things going on. With the Variations series, things become more contemplative and monochromatic, you see me collapsing the surfaces and the objects together. With my current practice there is more of this, more of a focus on different media and the surface has become more of an interface.

An example from the Variations series, where individual canvases were painted monochromatically each day, and only put together at the very end. Marjorie refers to  this as being “pale as it is golden – sunlight hardened to a substance.”


We closed off our chat with a short tour of the exhibition.

We especially loved Jeremy’s affordably – priced painted-over postcards, which you can select like cupcakes on a tray and assemble however you like. Marjorie explains that:

“Jeremy always looks to the surface he’s interested in, and then considers what material he should put on. His brain moves very fast, and it’s often always about the surface.”

These works in particular explore the interaction of paint with the surface of some very quaint old postcards:

U is given a “tray,” with which to make her selection…
….she settles on these (especially coveting the ones of the Vietnamese ladies)
Check out the wonderful, rippling texture of that paint!

As always, good food is never far off when (plu)ral’s on the job.

Here are some shots of the lovely lunch arranged by Art Forum:

Our Malay-Indian lunch of rendang, tempeh, raita and sayur lodeh. In a way, it was a great metaphor for abstract art– not immediately recognisable as beautiful, and not always to everyone’s liking, but with great depth and capacity for fulsome flavour, when consumed and appreciated properly!
Happy campers

What did we think of it all?

The easy friendship between Jeremy and Marjorie was a lovely thing to bear witness to – the relationship between artist and gallerist isn’t always an easy one, but in these two, we saw a wonderful bond of fondness and mutual respect. We also loved Marjorie’s openness and willingness to engage on all manner of issues to do with abstract art. No question was too stupid or uninformed.

Not for no reason does Timeout Singapore refer to Marjorie as “one of the industry’s most colorful characters,” and as being “instrumental” in the development of Singapore’s art scene.

We’d encourage you to stop by if you’re looking for a non-intimidating introduction to abstraction, in a beautiful exhibition space, by a most lively and effusive gallerist.

Jeremy Sharma: The First Seven Years runs at Art Forum till 31 July.

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