Cheong Soo Pieng: Bridging Worlds

balancing east and west

Cheong Soo Pieng Bridging Worlds. Images with the permission of TNAGS.

It takes a tremendous effort to mount an extensive, retrospective exhibition. Surpassing a similar exhibition on Cheong Soo Pieng at NUS Museum earlier this year, this exhibition covers a wider spectrum of works, revealing the illustrious career of one of  Singapore’s most prolific and industrious pioneer artist. From the range of works, one can sense the artist’s varied approaches to art making, balancing aesthetics sensibilities of Western impresisonist, cubist, abstract expressionism with Eastern Chinese traditional gongbi, xieyi techniques and styles.

This exhibition is significant in many ways. Firstly, it charts the chronological development of the artist’s methods and  styles, oscillating between figurative and abstract, impressionistic or cubist-like oil paintings and chinese ink paintings. Secondly, it explains the importance of drawing as an art fundamental; the artist’s sketches are confident and decisive, forming the crucial composition before colours are added. Thirdly, it reveals the curiosity and exploration of alternative materials such as wood-block prints,  impasto painting and scrap metal relief, often overshadowed by his outlined, ink-like svelte depiction of Balinese women. Fourthly, by displaying artifacts and books collected by the artist, it divulges the artist’s Western art influence, evident from the European art catalogues he must have read. Lastly, by commissioning contemporary works to insert into this exhibition, the curators took a calculated risk to inject more relevance and appeal.

Cheong Soo Pieng stands among the pioneer artists we attribute much of Singapore’s modern art to. A well loved and respected artist, he was amongst the few recognised for being unapologetic for his unique style – assimilating flat areas of colours and angular figures from the cubist and using meticulous brushstrokes to outline his subject matter from traditional gongbi chinese ink painting.  Two paintings, Three Goats (1959) and My Daughter (1966) could be used to illustrate the assimilation of cubism and chinese ink painting into Cheong Soo Pieng’s oil paintings. From Three Goats (1959), we see the strong use of angular shapes and compressed background to reduce the subject matter to the minimal. Heavily textured and suggesting little atmospheric perspective, naturalism is abandoned for pictorial balance – the smaller red goat balances the larger presence of black on the left of the painting. More visual devices are used to achieve harmony and balance in the painting. The white outlines accentuate the body of the goats, lifting them easily to the foreground. The white outline appears again in Tropical Life (1959), suggesting its continual exploration as a visual device to create contrast and possible influence from Batik – fabric made from wax-resist, dyeing techniques common in southeast asia.  The impasto-like brushstrokes add a rustic feel to the pastoral landscape in the painting. My Daughter (1966) resembles a portraiture in traditional chinese ink, but with exaggerated features of a caricature done in oil. In this case, the girl is very slim and stretched vertically.  The characteristic outline surrounds the elongated figure and hands. The painting is again flat and the suggestion of space is created by the vertical dry brushstrokes in the background.

The seminar visit to Bali in 1952 affirmed the artist’s interest in capturing a local flavour in his work, best signified through colour. Landscapes, people, clothing, food and lifestyles amalgamate and split Cheong Soo Pieng’s works to two distinct palettes: those light, pastel-like, organic greens and yellow ochre, seen in Untitled (Bali Girls with Dog); and those heavy with symbolic, bold blacks and Crimson Lake reds seen in Balinese Maidens (1954) or A Vision (1962). His palette consistently switched between the two.

Less is known about his sketches in pen, watercolour on the street scenes – roadside hawker stalls selling food stuff or fishermen tending to their nets. People as subject matter occupied Cheong Soo Pieng the most in his art, animals and landscape second. The human figure is perhaps the most challenging subject matter and most fascinating to draw compared with landscapes – the human form alters with each shift of the body weight. Capturing likeness in a portrait yields satisfaction; capturing the essence of the person is sublime. It is the necessity to capture the essence of people, animals and landscapes in his paintings that shaped Cheong Soo Pieng’s exploration with naturalistic representation, abstraction and colour.

Even less is known about his metal works, such as Abstract II (1967) and Composition (1973), that possibly developed in tandem or following his abstract ink series such as Untitled (Abstract Landscape 1) (1962). Possibly influenced by Cloissonne and the necessity to create public commissions that could withstand the elements, metal relief became a large pre-occupation for the artist in the 60s and 70s.

One criticism against Cheong Soo Pieng’s work is his detachment and over- idealisation of his southeast asian subject matter. Placed beside his southeast asian counterparts with strong realism influence, or those with rich spiritual connotations, Cheong’s work may appear trivial and de-sensitised to the political tensions,  social changes, urban landscape shifts evident in Singapore. For example, Chua Mia Tee’s National Language Class (1959) and Epic Poem of Malaya (1959), drew strong influence from themes such as nationalism. Compared to Widayat’s retrospective, Widayat Between Worlds (Singapore Art Museum, 2007), or Latiff Mohidin’s  retrospective, The Journey to Wetlands and Beyond ( Singapore Art Museum, 2009) Cheong’s late works appear more divergent. Versatility, and commercial success as compromise are two interpretations of Cheong’s divergent art approaches.

The subject matter of people, animals and landscape depicted by Cheong were skewed perception of reality, and his intent can be confined to image making or art for art’s sake. Pictorial balance and harmony were chief concerns in each work. Compared with Xu Beihong’s epic oil paintings with strong statements on Chinese modernity in the face of colonialism and World War II, Cheong’s work may seem isolated and confined not unlike the Indonesian Mooi Indie paintings that were innocent, romantic, naturalistic portrayal of idyllic and fertile land.

We can conclude that the role of the artist, for Cheong Soo Pieng, was perhaps to make art and nothing more, or less.

9.0 of 10 stars

curated by TNAGS, 16 September 2010 to 26 December 2010, Singapore Art Museum
An exhibition catalogue is available at the museum shop.

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