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There and Back Again—Samuel Chen Returns from Russia to Paint Pictures of Home

“If you read Russian literature, like Tolstoy, there’s always something very beautiful and tragic about how history is like the tide—very impersonal, very cruel sometimes. And human beings are just subjects. They seem powerless. But it’s not that our agency does nothing at all. My art practice, through all these years, is always trying to confront that fact.”

It’s only been about five minutes into my interview with Samuel Chen, but the tenor of the conversation has already reached a grand pitch—embracing the broad sweep of history and the stubborn dignity of the human soul. 

This sensibility permeates our entire dialogue. Chen takes a deep, philosophical interest in the societies in which he lives, and prizes authenticity as an artist above all. 

But the grandeur of Chen’s imagination is tempered by a certain earthy humility and self-deprecation. He’s confident his works will someday hang in museums, yet at one point says frankly, “I do art because I’m useless. I can’t do anything else. I’d rather be a rock musician.” His works in the Home series, currently on show at Mr. Lim’s Shop of Visual Treasures, are understatedly splendid portraits of his Pasir Ris home of 24 years. 

At times, Chen’s story feels like a study in scale and contrast—society and individual, history and home, chilly Russia and equatorial Singapore.

Entrance of my studio (2023), oil on canvas, 50 x 40 cm. All images courtesy of Mr. Lim’s Shop of Visual Treasures unless otherwise stated.


In 2021, Chen embarked on a full-time course of study at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts in Russia—living, gallerist Lim Chiao Woon says in an email, on “basically vodka and bread.” Drawn by the richness of Russian art and culture, he’d previously taken several short-term courses in the country after completing his degree at the LASALLE College of the Arts. There, he studied representational painting and immersed himself in everyday Russian life. But with the war going on, and his father growing old, Chen ultimately decided to give up his scholarship and return home.

Long before he was painting in the snow or getting scolded by his elderly Russian neighbour, though, Chen was a “directionless” 17-year-old who, by his own admission, was “neither athletic nor doing very well in school.” With his mother fighting cancer and his family struggling to pay for her treatment, it was an immensely difficult period in his life.

Back then, the teenage Chen visited the library “on a whim,” borrowed a copy of Betty Edwards’ Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and worked through the exercises. He now looks back upon it fondly as the first art book he ever read. Eventually, these first forays in pencil and coloured pencil led him to the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), where he took drawing under Singaporean artist Goh Ee Choo and gained his first exposure to academic art.

Stranger in a strange land

After his days at NAFA and LASALLE, Chen spent some time working in installation art, but Russia was an ideal place to further develop his interest in representational painting. Rather than technical training, however, Chen now considers “exposure to life itself” his biggest takeaway from his time there. 

In Russia, Chen soon moved out of the student dormitory into a rented apartment, where he lived not with foreign students but with ordinary Russians. “I started to converse with them more, and started to understand a little bit of the contradictions and problems. Russia is not one monolithic people.” 

Some of Chen’s etudes (studies) from Russia. Image by author.

He now looks skeptically at Singaporeans who praise other countries without fully immersing themselves in a different culture. People, he believes, have similar problems wherever they are. 

“After I went [to Russia], I realised that people are the same essentially everywhere. You have the heroic people and then you have the cowards. You have the people who are very fake and the people who are genuine [to the point that] they suffer for it.”

To thine own self be true

Sincerity, in fact, is one of the guiding principles behind Chen’s life and art. At one point in our interview, his gallerist Lim asks after a particular painting. “It felt very fake, so I didn’t want to finish it,” Chen says, without a trace of sentiment or regret. 

Fighting against the tide of history, he insists, “doesn’t mean being contrary for contrary’s sake…What I’m fighting, and even more in myself, is insincerity.” 

What do these ideas mean to him? Insincerity means falseness—being a “fake” person, engaging in inauthentic relationships, putting up a facade. Sincerity, on the other hand, implies moral courage, as well as a process of self-actualisation independent of what philosophy, ideology, or religion would say—“a raw, naked confrontation with your real self, your core.”

Corridor outside my house, Pasir Ris (2023), oil on canvas, 35.2 x 25.5 cm.

Small wonder, then, that Chen remains unfazed by those who consider traditional art “reactionary” or “old-fashioned.” To him, it is—like any other art form”—a “tool…to be used sensitively and with empathy.” 

This emphasis on truth and sincerity also means that he does not fear the rise of AI art: “AI cannot do the things I do, because they’re from my life. AI does not see and live and step in the courtyard, or the HDB, or my home. How can I tell AI about my father’s room and have it generate something that is actually a part of lived experience? It may generate a pretty picture, but art is not just about pretty pictures.”

But how can an artist maintain his authenticity when faced with all sorts of financial and societal pressures? For Chen, the answer is simple. Rather than rely solely on the commercial art market—and thus on the vicissitudes of trend and taste—he works part-time as an art teacher, and dedicates the rest of the week to his personal practice. “If you spend time doing stupid crap, by the time you’re [past] sixty, you will realise that you cannot step away from that crap. You’ve learned how to be fake, and cannot get your authenticity back,” he says. Instead, he recommends, “earn money so that you can use that money to buy back your freedom.”

I ask Chen about the driving force behind his practice. He grows pensive.

“I don’t know. [It’s] a bit like…running out of time. I cannot put it into words now. It’s just that life is very, very, very short. And whatever I do now, maybe in a hundred years, will be forgotten. Yet, I don’t want to just fade out. I don’t want to just go gently into the night.”

Papa’s wardrobe (2023), oil on canvas, 50 x 40 cm.

Coming home

Chen’s new solo at Mr. Lim’s Shop of Visual Treasures presents his Home series—paintings of his HDB of 24 years, created after his return to Singapore. That such quotidian scenes are so deeply suffused with emotion testifies to Chen’s skill as a painter. He pays careful attention to the treatment of light, and achieves texture—a painted wall, sunlight on tiled floors—so gorgeously that it casts out a kind of faint glow. Many of the spaces are unoccupied, yet obviously lived-in, giving you the eerie feeling that someone could pop around the corner at any moment, or that you’ve just missed them passing by.  

In just one of the paintings, there’s a human figure, hunched solitarily over the dining table. This is “Papa,” Chen’s father, and the key reason for his return home.

I like to conclude interviews by asking artists about their daily routines. In Chen’s case, what’s striking is, first, the simplicity of his reply, and, second, the extent to which it revolves around his father. After his father’s morning health routine, they go out for lunch and groceries; later in the day, Papa Chen naps or cycles, while his son plays computer games, admires the evening light, and paints, if he’s in the mood. 

Papa checking his blood pressure (2023), oil on canvas, 50 x 40 cm.

It’s mundane, Chen admits, but “that is, to me, a perfect day. Then I go to bed with no worries on my mind, thinking that, ‘Tomorrow, I’m just going to have lunch with Papa again. Everything’s going to be okay.’”

But perhaps the profound lies latent in the mundane. Though he’s pondered the meaning of life and painted distant climes, Chen ultimately finds his satisfaction much closer to home, and turns to home as his subject.

“I just hope to spend as long as I can with my dad. If we’re lucky, then maybe we’ll have only fifteen, twenty years together. It’ll pass very quickly, so I don’t want to be out [there] ‘chasing my dream’…I don’t think there’s anything that Russia can give me now.”


Home runs at Mr. Lim’s Shop of Visual Treasures until 3 March 2024. Find out more about Samuel Chen here. Plus, read about a previous show at Mr. Lim’s gallery here

Header image: Papa checking his blood pressure, detail (2023), oil on canvas, 50 x 40 cm.

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