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Three of Singapore's forgotten art masters

Published on Jul 8, 2014 10:27 AM

Art of the here and now is often an obsession over what is hot, new and young.

From budding artists bursting onto the scene to upcoming art stars showing off fresh work, the contemporary art world resists being of the past.

Singapore’s visual arts landscape has similarly lapsed into amnesia from time to time, spurning what has been done before for a heady taste of the innovative, and the giddy pace at which new artists and art forms emerge.

But the tide is turning as art institutions here relook the works of artists who have played a major role in developing artistic practices relevant to contemporary art here.

Life! speaks with three artists, sculptor Wee Kong Chai, 86, painter Chieu Shuey Fook, 80, and conceptual artist Goh Ee Choo, 51, whose practices have marked significant moments in the development of the visual arts in Singapore, but who have fallen off the public’s radar in recent years.

Sculptor Wee Kong Chai, 86

Formerly a painter who sought to capture the naked honesty of life through the human body, Wee chose to forfeit years of training in the medium when he could not find nude art models here in the 1970s to sit for his portraits.
Instead, the alumnus of the Singapore Academy of Arts and Paris’ Ecole Nationale Superieure Des Beaux-Arts turned to a self-taught practice in wood-carving, which has defined his oeuvre for the last three decades and marked his contribution to the visual arts scene here.

His sculptures of human figures, alone and in groups, are rooted in the fundamentals of proportion, balance and spatial harmony. Yet the works stand apart for the tender depiction of the bond between figures and their evocative expressions.

His body of work includes semi-abstract sculptures which he carved by allowing the grain and natural variations in the colour tone of the wood to dictate the subject.
He has also hammered copper nails, remnants of military supplies left behind by the British colonial army that he found at the Sungei Road flea market, into sculptures. The heads of the nails, burnished over time, create a mottled surface that adds subtle texture, pattern and liveliness to the sculptures, including a large bust, a self-portrait.

He continues to work on his sculptures from home every day, moving between different workspaces – a shed under a starfruit tree in the front garden, a work table in the porch and another spot in the backyard – in his single-storey bungalow in Serangoon Gardens.

He has no lack of ideas for new works, but he accepts that his age is catching up so he mostly works on improving and finishing the pieces he started.
In an unfinished sculpture, a semi-abstract figure with elegantly elongated limbs emerges from a tree trunk.

Multi-media artist Goh Ee Choo, 52

In the 1990s, Goh was among Singapore’s brightest young art stars.
A graduate of London’s prestigious Slade School of Fine Art, his cutting-edge, conceptual work drew praise from art critics here and chalked up multiple art awards.
His mixed media on canvas piece titled Awakening Of The Spiritual Dragon won the Juror’s Choice award at the 1999 Philip Morris Asean Art Awards.

He first made his mark on the art scene here in 1988 with the ground-breaking exhibition Trimurti, held at the Goethe-Institut.
The show, which also included Goh’s peers, S. Chandrasekaran and Salleh Japar, featured works anchored in the belief systems and iconography of the artists’ different religious traditions - Taoism and Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam.
This culturally-specific approach to contemporary art made the exhibition an immediate critical success because it marked a breakthrough in contemporary art discourse at that time, which was mostly driven by Western concepts.

After he returned from London in 1990, he taught at his alma mater, the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts until 1996, before joining Lasalle College of the Arts as a part-time lecturer in its fine arts programme.
He continued to make art on the side, refining his early ideas on Taoism and Buddhism while imbuing his pieces with a stronger sense of spirituality. His work, Container Shrine Series For World Peace (1996), for example, recreates the experience of a Buddhist shrine inside a cargo container and presents it as an art installation to make a statement against art for art’s sake. It was exhibited in Copenhagen in 1996.

As Goh, a devout Buddhist, became more religious however, he could not avoid scrutinising his work through spiritual lenses and asking the question: Was his art enhancing the lives of others, or was it meaningless?
Eventually, he decided to match what people needed to what he could give, devoting himself fully to the art of teaching. He now teaches drawing in the animation department of Lasalle.
“Teaching is my work of art,” he says. “The students are my artists and the end result is when they come out and find good jobs in the animation arts industry.”

Artist Chieu Shuey Fook, 80

Chieu was the darling of business corporations in the 1970s and 1980s when they were among the biggest patrons of Singapore’s visual arts. His vivid metal relief work attracted commissions by companies here and won awards.

His low-relief aluminium work titled Demon Fish (1970), for example, was picked by the International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation for their worldwide advertising campaign. The work also made waves in the United States, winning a citation of merit from the Society of Illustrators in 1971.

His art was similarly well-known to the wider public. The most prominent among his public artworks was a 30m-long copper frieze that stood outside the Orchard MRT Station from 1987 for 20 years. The mural, which depicted Singapore’s diverse ethnic cultures, was later lost during the construction of the Ion Orchard mall that sits above the station.

His artistic practice though, began in batik painting. The alumnus of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts switched to metal relief in the 1970s because the batik painting scene here had become increasingly crowded with both amateurs and prominent artists, and he wanted to forge his own visual vocabulary.

Since giving up a 28-year career as an advertising art director and becoming a full-time artist in 1984, he has expanded his body of work to include brightly coloured, semi-abstract metal reliefs with energetic line compositions reminiscent of Chagall and Miro, and enamel-and-glass on tile compositions.

He is also working on a new series of aluminium relief work, which uses a blend of powdered pigments he formulated himself to create the effect of oxidised bronze.
With a rich body of work amassed through the years, he is ready to hold a major solo show next year and is in the midst of preparing for it.