Confessions of a Framer of Art

loading Interim hanging of Dr. Jolly Koh's repertoire in between exhibitions. The sculpture on the pedestal is by American sculptor Brian Donnelly, better known as Kaws.

WOULD YOU BLOW a couple of hundred Ringgit to frame just a small piece of tissue paper?

This was one of the curious incidents in the 38 years of arty framing by Winson Loh, 52, better known as PinkGuy. After completing the task, curiosity got the better of him, and he discreetly asked the client why he spent so much money to frame a piece of tissue. It was something sentimental related to the client’s girlfriend, he was told, and Winson left it at that.

Chang Fee Ming’s December At Noon, Across The River (2012). Frame-up size: 109.22cm x 109.22cm.

Apart from artworks, Winson had framed some antique maps, patent certificates and a full wedding gown. The map-framing was a valuable lesson. He inexplicably lost one of four maps handed to him. Panicked, he searched for one that approximated the lost copy. The client did not notice anything amiss when he claimed the framed works. But Winson told him the truth, and even offered to give back the upfront payment.

On the framing of four 150-year-old patent certificates, he innovated 3D double framing which allowed easy access to the pieces. On the framing of the wedding gown, he opted for a matching colour scheme coupled with aesthetic folds. The expatriate client could not collect the framed gown as her mother had died suddenly. Winson commiserated; he did remember taking a picture of her mother with her at his shop, and so printed a copy and framed it for the client as a memento.

It’s such little touches in creating a rapport with clients, that are the hallmark of PinkGuy’s framing philosophy, apart from him being arguably the only one doing conservation framing in Malaysia (previously, there was Michael Chan of WS, too).

In the art-framing business, PinkGuy has become a brand, and is known for its innovative and trendsetting techniques. When reputable collectors take their expensive artworks to be framed, they are usually kan-cheong / kincheong (Cantonese / Hokkien for “uptight”) and want the work done soonest. With PinkGuy, the waiting period can be as long as six months, and appointments are made first, as he sorts out the orders.

Cheng Thak Liu’s Macalister Lane, Georgetown (2009). Frame-up size: 153.67cm x 153.67cm.

What’s quirkier, the clients don’t get to choose the frames physically from a set array of samples. Based on the work and specs, Winson recommends the type of frame and colour, how it is to be set and mounted. Every framed PinkGuy work comes with a “diamond” stud on either side of the frame, as a mark of identity, quality and guarantee. The “diamonds” are low-grade crystal paste called “duct cut”. Since last year, there is also a PinkGuy inspection label seal.

When Winson decided in 2013 to publish a sleek 98-page coffee-table book chronicling 30 years of framing excellence, he aptly named it Diamonds are Forever. The book, measuring 33.02cm x 27.94cm, doubles as a primer on art-framing, with emphasis on conservation.

“Diamonds are forever, for perpetuity,” says Winson extolling the intrinsic beauty and hardness. But not all are sold on the idea. A Caucasian wanted to frame six works of a well-known Australian photographer. Each frame costs RM3,000. But he was adamant in not wanting any “diamond” on the frames. Says Winson: “The ‘diamond’ is not to advertise my business. I explained to him that the frame style he wanted came only with ‘diamond’ studs. He could choose from 49 other frames which are sans ‘diamonds’.”

The front and back of the framed print from Latiff Mohidin's iconic Pago-Pago series.

Winson confides that he was tempted to give in, as the bill worked out to a handsome RM18,000. “What do you care if the frame comes with or without ‘diamonds’?” In the end, he stood his ground and lost a prospective client.

Over the years, Winson has made several innovations (one later found to be conservation unfriendly): 3D double framing; double-glass framing; glue-less; CM stopper protectors (at the back of frame for safety and aesthetic purposes); frameless look; Line black (truncated thin strips of black frames covering only the back of painting); inspection labels; “diamond” studs imprimatur; and using of “invisible glass” called Where’s My Glass? (Paul Cheong’s La Galerie du Monde in Petaling Jaya is the only other using this glass).

He admits to having made mistakes. “The double-glass framing exuded a 2D effect. But I later found out that the framing was not suitable, as the humidity on the wall was absorbed onto the glass, developing fungus. This framing is particularly unsuitable for watercolours.” He now uses museum boards instead of acid-free mat boards, though he concedes that packing also counts in conservation protocol.

He applied modern double frames for Latiff Mohidin’s Pago-Pago work, with the other frame in black leather and the inner in blue hues with thin gold edges. For Chang Fee Ming’s work, he designed matching weft of the sarong of the figures. He designed the “frameless look” for Suzlee Ibrahim’s Dialogue (May 2013) and Yong Look Lam’s Ashore (October 2010) exhibitions, while he opted for a double frameless effect in Ch’ng Huck Theng’s Apple series.

Eng Tay’s Prelude (2007). Frame-up size: 109.22cm x 134.62cm.

Winson advises against using cheap wooden frames which are susceptible to fungus and insects, and can even damage an expensive artwork. “When a client comes to me, there are two main questions: What does the artwork consist of; and what is the most suitable method to preserve it?”

PinkGuy’s framing credo is “Preservation First, Beauty Second”. “The framing should never outshine the artwork, it should just be the main supporting actor. Our framing is designed for Malaysia’s (and Southeast Asia’s) humid climate. Preservation helps to prolong the life of the painting. A good frame extends the life of the work and enhances its aesthetic and visual appreciation,” says Winson, who is also the designated framer for the Henry Butcher Art Auctioneers.

The industry is replete with stories of feats in frame-making. When Dato’ Tai Keik Hock, owner of the Dai-Ichi art business in North Malaysia, could not find someone to frame his curation of Zhang Zhou’s epic Mosaics of Malaysia exhibition (2009) at the National Art Gallery in KL, he tapped into his own parquet flooring factory in Kulim to create two frames measuring a colossal 180cm x 540cm. But arguably the largest custom-frame measuring 181.5cm x 609cm, for a Raphael Scott Ahbeng acrylic painting, was done by Dennis Chan, an artist in his own right (it was for collector-gallerist Loh Yee Min of Jia Ju Art Gallery).

Another important component is the art installer, the pioneering Ben Oh, who is known to have scaled high walls of hotels to install artworks. PinkGuy Malaysia Art & Frame was established in 2007 at Plaza Damas, extending his business to curating exhibitions “in order to help artists”. In 2009 he opened another outlet at Marc Residences, just opposite the KL Twin Towers.

Dato’ Chuah Thean Teng’s Mother And Child Planting Sunflower (1969). Frame-up size: 78.74cm x 93.98cm.

He then decided to close the Plaza Damas outlet. In 2017 he got a two-year contract for a high-ceilinged 800-square-feet outlet in Taman Melawati. He finally closed the Marc outlet in October 2019 after he got a choice first-floor lot in Bangsar Telawi 3’s “Golden Strip” in May 2019.

The name, PinkGuy, is not linked to Thai conceptual artist-photographer Manit Sriwanichpoom, a.k.a. “Pink Man”. Winson chose the PinkGuy name as it mnemonically sounds like the Malay word, bingkai, which means frame.

The works in a PinkGuy exhibition are all unusually covered up and only unveiled after the opening speeches. Winson decided on this after a double-booking gaffe when a new customer had paid for a work but another had red-dotted it. So, Winson decided on covering up all the works, in order to give everyone, newbie collector and a seasoned one, equal opportunity to purchase the works. Even once when a big corporation wanted to mop up all 10 available works before the exhibition opening, Winson told them to buy after the opening ceremony. Such was the popularity of his stable of artists that a prospective collector who went to take a leak just before the works were unveiled found all works red-dotted on his return.

For his exhibition artists, he custom-framed all the works, at no extra charge, thus keeping to the artists’ standard prices. He has curated, among others, Tew Nai Tong’s major Glories exhibition, and to date, 10 solo exhibitions by Cheng Thak Lui. He has also held exhibitions for Dr. Jolly Koh, Claris Chan, Yeoh Kean Thai, Tang Hong Lee and Myanmar’s Aye Min.

A painting by leading Malaysian Chinese brush painter-calligrapher-poet Cheng Haw Chien using Western conservation framing; and like traditional scroll framing, with the painted surface exposed.

Winson apprenticed at the pioneering Leong Brothers at the age of 16, working there for a year and nine months, before he joined Worldwide Art & Frame (WW). He opted for WW despite another outlet offering him RM50 more, because it gave him creative freedom, and the boss kept him up-to-date with the latest brochures of trends overseas. He was even allowed to do part-time consultation with Leong Brothers. He then joined another outfit for five years before going on a joint-venture with three partners. That lasted 10 years.

It was in setting up Lookiss Gallery with a partner in Ampang, though short-termed, that Winson was bent on branching into the art-gallery business, this time as sole proprietor. Winson recalls that he was small when his father, a furniture shop owner, died tragically and the business had to be sold off. His mother, a widow at 28, had to work as a factory seamstress to bring him and his brother up.

Winson studied until only Form 2 (Confucian High School in Petaling Street, KL) because of impecunious circumstances. He recalls that when he took part in his school’s art exhibition, his was the only work that was without a frame. “My work was naked,” he rues.

What an irony!

Ooi Kok Chuen, art-writer and journalist, is the author of MAHSURI: A Legend Reborn (Ooi Peeps Publishing), an adult contemporary fantasy “movel” (a novel conceived as a mock movie) spun from a local legend.

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