Artist Wong Keen marches to his own drumbeat

Painter Wong Keen’s combination of abstraction with Eastern influences is seen in his art, from nudes (above) to raw meat in Flesh III which, at $40,000, is the most expensive work for the exhibition. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO
Painter Wong Keen’s combination of abstraction with Eastern influences is seen in his art, from nudes (above) to raw meat in Flesh III which, at $40,000, is the most expensive work for the exhibition. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO
Painter Wong Keen’s combination of abstraction with Eastern influences is seen in his art, from nudes to raw meat in Flesh III (above) which, at $40,000, is the most expensive work for the exhibition. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO
Painter Wong Keen’s combination of abstraction with Eastern influences is seen in his art, from nudes to raw meat in Flesh III (above) which, at $40,000, is the most expensive work for the exhibition. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

The most expensive work in Wong Keen's show is from his Flesh series

Lotuses composed in the evening light, a mottled rack of raw meat, a partial silhouette of a female nude - these are some of the subjects in Wong Keen's fund-raising exhibition for The Substation.

Running from today to June 13, the show features 28 works spanning the artist's 50-year career. The pieces were donated by a group of private collectors and range in price from $1,600 to $40,000.

California-based Wong, 73, calls Substation "a wonderful place". He says: "Most of the galleries in Singapore are still very commercial. They buy only art which they know will sell.

"The Substation is not like that. It's a good place for young artists who aren't just thinking about money, but about experimenting with different things and expressing concepts."

Wong, who now shuttles among California, Beijing and Singapore, has the same experimental spirit in his own work. Known for his large, evocative compositions of lotuses and female nudes, he combines abstraction with Eastern influences such as calligraphy and traditional Chinese landscapes.

His work is collected in the Singapore Art Museum and was the subject of a solo exhibition in 2007 when the-then chairman Koh Seow Chuan donated 63 of Wong's works to the museum.

In Singapore, he has a studio in Bukit Batok where he spends most of his time when he is back here.

Even though his unsmiling portrait may not suggest it, he is humorous and gracious in person. "People are always telling me that I don't smile much. That's not true, I always laugh at my own jokes," he says with a chuckle.

With this same candour and wry intelligence, he relates the adventures of his youth.

In 1961, when he was just 19 years old, he boarded a freight carrier to New York City with US$200 in his pocket.

After disembarking two months later, he took a room at a sailor's dormitory before enrolling at the Art Students League of New York - which attracted artists such as Mark Rothko and Ai Wei Wei.

"At that point in time, I didn't feel 19. I just felt like somebody who could move," he says. "Even today, I feel like I can move. Maybe just a bit more carefully now."

The years have done little to quell Wong's bohemian spirit. After spending a few months here, he will head to Beijing for three months and return to his home in California "only when I feel like it".

Retiring, of course, is out of the question. "As an artist, I don't think I can. I'm not permitted."

He has been widely recognised as Singapore's first abstract expressionist, though that is not a label he identifies with.

Abstract expressionism is a wide- ranging art movement that evolved in America after World War II, combining emotional intensity and non-figurative subjects.

Wong says: "I have never considered myself as anything. I am just myself. People trying to identify each other as this and that - it's a form of marketing."

His subject matter has also evolved over the years. During a 2012 residency with the Gallerie Urs Meile in Beijing, he veered off his usual subjects - lotuses and female nudes - to come up with the Flesh series based on the shapes of raw meat.

He says: "The colours and forms are beautiful. They almost look like flowers."

Incidentally, the exhibition's most expensive painting, at $40,000, is a piece from the series.

Yet, even as his paintings change along with his scenery, there continues to be a prevailing character to them.

He consistently infuses his work with elements of Chinese calligraphy, demonstrating the influence of his late mother, calligraphy artist Chu Hen-Ai.

"My mother left me a lot of her writing before she died. I still refer to them when I paint, which allows me to preserve her work," he says.

Perhaps this cultural rootedness is one of the reasons he has managed to stay independent in his art and personal life. "I'm a Singaporean at heart. I speak four dialects, as well as Malay."

"Also," he adds definitively, "I eat durian."

rebeccat@sph.com.sg