Daily Archives: July 4, 2010

Rediscovering Yeh Chi Wei

Recovering Patchworks in Singapore Art

Rediscovering Yeh Chi Wei

The catalogue will probably do the artist more justice in describing his style. His tastes are eclectic, preferring the texture of huge head statues of the Angkor Wat, the ornamental Javanese woodcarvings, Chinese plate motifs and Chinese stone carvings or calligraphy.  His interest represented the desire to travel Southeast Asian, seeking to understand the position of Singapore he called home. Rightfully, his art stems from the appreciation of arts (and crafts) from Southeast Asia.

Like French artist Henri Matisse, his composition has a collage-like quality, abstracting ornamental patterns into elaborate compositions heavily layered and impastoed. Like lacquerware, His choice of colours are subdued and earthy, reflecting his austerities for texture. Textured brushstrokes, layers of it, was what gave his figures skin, flesh and life. The gestural impasto and earthy colour could have represented the layers of histories that cover his Southeast Asian artifacts and he was revealing our incomprehension of them.

His painted figures have elongated necks, graphic-representative torsos and simplified poses. The faces loose details gaining anonymity, much like the sculptures and reliefs he collected. The facelessness only matched by the absence of the artist’s self-portrait.

Paintings, such as Singapore Sea Front (1961), reveal his interest in abstracting the picture plane similar to Cheong Soo Pieng or Chen Wen Hsi. The careful placement of geometrical and organic forms create a resemblance to a patchwork quilt, tickling the mind to see other shapes and objects. Again, the rich layering suggest an interest in colours more than visual representation.

The exhibition layout used the two wings effectively to set the context (Ten Person Group), and the artist’s works. By presenting artifacts that the artist collected, and making wall-text references to details from these objects the viewer could visibly trace his inspiration. What may not be immediately evident is his influence on younger artists, even though TNAGS lays claim to his leadership in Singapore 20th century art.

Placing his determination and artistic accomplishments on the same page as the Nanyang Style, The National Art Gallery, Singapore (TNAGS) is making a bold statement to recover bits and pieces of our local art history. Yeh Chi Wei might just spark research interests for other artists that made stylistic differences in the 50s-60s. While many will sympathise with the artist for ‘falling into obscurity’, the reason to create art transcends.

7.0 of 10 stars for the amount of research, curatorial direction and potential to spark interests in Singapore Art history. The body of works is visibly lesser than the retrospective staged for Chen Wen Hsi.

27 May – 12 Sep 2010, TNAGS at SAM
Catalogue, with accompanying CD-ROM, available at S$60. Limited special online price at S$55.

For once, a contemporary review of a Singapore Artist in the New York Times:

Realism in Asian Art

Acknowledging the influence of Western Art

Realism in Asian Art

Subject matter and technique mark the distinction of a Realist painter.

The exhibition pulls together a collection of works from Asia that will connects with an Asian audience with their virtuosity to manipulate paint to photographic likeness. The term realism, could refer to painting in the representational tradition, painting as close to what the eyes could see. Art buffs would add that Realism, is an art historical term, referring to the treatment of ordinary subject matter ‘rejecting the rhetoric and artifice’ of imaginative and visionary 19th century Romanticism. Gustave Courbet, Francois Millet are fine examples of that subject matter and realistic representational painting technique. For students, the exhibition is an excellent opportunity to see artworks by artists from their art syllabi.

The exhibition acknowledges the influence of Western Art on the development of Asian Art. Perspective, the mathematical understanding of depicting an environment on a 2 dimensional surface was popularised by the 15th century Renaissance artists.  Their paintings had single vanishing points that lead the viewers’ eyes into the picture frame, creating windows of illusion. Perspective is crucial to create pictures that are representational. As Southeast Asia became colonised, the art market shifted with new powers, to the demand for familiar singular-perspective oil paintings. Asian artists who painted in this new media and tradition inherited its virtues and historical baggage.

Some of us will see this exhibition with a sense of detachment while poring over the technique or examining the subject of the painting with our own understanding of Asian history. They lack the monumental feel that Lourve Museum or Museum D’Orsay in France will impart. Others might feel a new sense of sight, understanding how art could form a social commentary or criticism in more subtle ways than rallies and protest marches. These works are mellow, resilient against the fad of conceptualism, transcending the everyday they represent.

The adventurous exhibition design with the sloping wall fixtures do little to explain the curatorial concept of the exhibition. Intended to guide and frame the visitors’ understanding of ‘types of paintings that represent realism’. For example, it suggests only paintings in “social commentary and criticism” section are critical. The interior decor, seems to favour wood verneer and uplighting, focusing on the curatorial wall text that greets you as you are channeled through the exhibition. Instead of accentuating the artworks, this seems to compete for attention.

However, this exhibition has several distinctions from other permanent collection exhibitions. The brimming range of works give a more thorough illustration of an ‘artistic style’ common in modern Asian art. The larger wall text is generally helpful but the smaller ones may appear iffy to some, as it repeats and overlaps in some areas. The activity corner in level 3 allows younger museum goers to learn through play, some of the considerations artists have when they make art.

6.0 of 10 stars

The National Art Gallery, using SAM premises, 9 April – 4 July 2010
Catalogue “Realism in Asia” vol. 1 available at the bookshop for S$25.