Category Archives: Guest Writer

The Burning Gaze by Hyung Koo Kang

Hyung Koo Kang: The Burning Gaze

The human face appears to be the obsession of Korean artist Hyung Koo Kang, whose exhibited paintings are mostly portraits depicting this particular body part. Each canvas is a close-up of a face rendered in a photorealistic manner, and the faces painted include those of Hyung himself, and of well-known figures such as Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol, Princess Diana and Mao Zedong, just to name a few.

One of Hyung’s quotes printed on the wall of the museum reveals Hyung’s opinions of the human face, seeing it “… As the single body part that most effectively represents a human being, the face is unique, without a double and serves as the primary means to identify a person’s identity apart from another” (extract from wall text). What is the identity of a person then? Is it merely how he or she looks, or something more? Does it include his or her experiences and life stories? Hyung’s portraits are perhaps an exploration of this idea of identity, that of famous personalities, common people and himself.

Many of us may know bits and pieces of the lives of well-known people we so often see and hear about, whether through conversations with others, the media, or in books. Viewing Hyung’s portraits of those familiar faces, it is inevitable that various facts or stories concerning the subject matter come to mind. In Vincent van Gogh in Blue (2006), for example, Van Gogh’s mutilated ear portion is stitched back, a detail that prompts one to think of Van Gogh’s life. Van Gogh resembles a brooding movie character captured under a blue filter in the painting, and his cold, steely gaze, intensified by the dominant use of blue, is reminiscent of the piercing gaze of van Gogh in his own self portraits.

Several portraits, such as Old Woman (2003) and man (2004), depicts unnamed people, probably a representation of the common man and woman, who are outside the realm of fame. Confronted with the portrait of a stranger, with knowledge of only how he or she looks like, several questions may surface in one’s mind. Who are these people and are they real, or simply a figment of the artist’s imagination? What kind of life do they lead, what stories do they have?

​Hyung’s self portraits depict the artist in various states of emotion, with each painting bathed in a different colour. The composition of the paintings is tightly cropped, isolating the face from the rest of the body. One can imagine how the artist has probably spent much time observing the details of his face, perhaps staring into the mirror or taking photographs to familiarize himself with every inch of his face, while translating what he has observed onto the canvas. In Self Portrait (2010), an enormous painting made up of 3 canvases with Hyung depicted in bright red against a yellow background, the words ‘only one’ are faintly visible above Hyung’s signature at the bottom of the painting. Perhaps, his self portraits are painted to establish his own unique identity, a reminder that there is only one of every single human on earth, each with his or her own features and stories.

​Hyung’s refreshing use of a dominant, monochromatic colour render the faces in several paintings like photographs captured with coloured cellophane stuck over camera lens. One is invited to think about the possible meanings of the colours chosen, and how it relates to the subject matter being portrayed. For instance, is purple a reference to royalty and nobility or a certain deprivation in Diana (2010)?

The use of aluminium as the painting surface for several paintings is something I have never seen before, since canvases or wood seem to be more conventional, so this is an eye-opener for me. The material allows each strand of hair to come to life with its silvery quality, as can be seen in Monroe in the night sky (2010), where the wind-blown hair complements Monroe’s playful expression in the painting.

The Burning Gaze, while prompting one to think about what the human face can represent, is also a feast for the eyes. The photorealism of the paintings are impressive, inviting one to take in the details of each painting slowly and admire its beauty. The large size of the paintings commands one’s attention, and the imposing presence increases the impact the paintings have on the viewer. Both qualities contribute to the beautiful paintings that are worth several visits and are hard to forget.

Singapore Art Museum
14 October to 25 December 2011

Review by Ngiam Li Yi

Encountering Cheong Soo Pieng



I distinctively recall when asked to copy a piece of work by one of the pioneer artists, I had chosen Cheong’s Bali Girls.

As a secondary school student in the Art Elective Programme, I remember being introduced to, looking at and somewhat involuntarily made to study what is now termed as the Nanyang Art Style and the works of our pioneering artists such as Chen Wen Hsi, Liu Kang, Georgette Chen, Chen Chong Swee and of course Cheong Soo Pieng. Back then, as the girly sort who loved patterns, textures and designs, I was captivated by the long-limbed, sinewy and elongated forms of Cheong’s Bali Girls. Lines dominated the image, creating shapes and form through pattern.

Facing Children 1968, the archetypal figures of Cheong now seem almost wooden, carved in an image of stillness, like a sculpture in a painting. In an exhibition of Cheong’s curated by TK Sabapathy, Ahmad Mashadi and Karen Lim at the NUS Cultural centre, many of the works displayed are ones which I had not seen before, even in print form.[1] I invariably turn to other works.

In Untitled 1957, Cheong depicts a group of 3 labourers taking a break, seated in a tight-knitted triangle, they seem engaged in quiet activity, a game or letter reading perhaps, as suggested by the sheaf of papers and stack of books in the foreground. Their attention wholly on what is laid out in their centre, hidden to the viewer and the young boy who looks on from the left of the painting, included and yet distanced.

Whilst the composition seems to have been adapted a western schema of representation, seemingly like those in the paintings of Kirchner and Picasso. Aside from a focus on the exploration of oil painting there appears to be a distinctive South-East Asian subject matter. A tropical sensibility. Is there anything new about what I am saying? Nothing much, though when closely observed, we notice in the painting evidence of the layering and tacking of paint (almost to impasto) on the clothes of the figures, strokes of oil paint that demonstrate tone on the sleeves of the women, the scratches creating textures of the hats and basket, illuminating their form. The attempt by an artist to create a language of painting, within a new context of nation and home and place within his world. In the simplified gestures of rest we see the implication of the notion of work, of construction, of (nation) building. We cannot take away the realisation that these paintings were made during a not-too-long-ago time when samsui women did exist, when there were cows, sampans, kelongs, goats and chickens on the shores of our now developed nation. That these were part of life makes us aware of the landscape (literal, social and artistic) that has transformed rapidly over the course of less than 2 generations.

By writing this I am not waxing nostalgic about a time that once existed. Rather, by positing my present as the point of departure, Cheong Soo Pieng’s works thus become a sort of lesson in Singapore’s visual history, offering impasto glimpses of a palimpsestic place I have become unsure of; of a country I find difficult to understand; of a home (of my parents and grandparents) that is no longer here (for me to perceive).

Ironically, I suspect if it were not for the inclusion of these artists (and others) within the Ministry Of Education art syllabuses, it is perfectly possible that interest, knowledge and subsequently future understanding of Cheong’s works amongst future generations would fade in time to come. Just recently on Facebook I was smiling to myself, amused at the posts of some former students, excitedly planning a class reunion by going to see this exhibition at NUS Cultural Centre. It makes me wonder, just how many other young people have access, if modest, to these small and colourful pockets of history.

I do not want to forget.

The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.[2]

Liping Chan

Encountering Cheong Soo Pieng

Southeast Asian Gallery & NX Gallery, NUS Museum

5 March 2010 – 31 July 2010


[1] As I had not the opportunity to see many of his paintings except in books, catalogues and magazines, this show proved all the more enlightening in understanding/learning more on what I had once ‘studied’, read, and even discussed about with my own art students regarding his work. It is a pity though, that his works (as well as that of other important local artists) are not readily available to viewing and study at our museums, perhaps due to the lack of space. Hopefully the presence of the new National Art Gallery will change that.

[2] The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera