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:

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