Artist Wong Keen says there is beauty in the horror of his new installation

Artist Wong Keen and his latest installation called "Forest" at his studio in Gambas Crescent. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN
Artwork titled Blossom, (2022) by the artist Wong Keen , on show at artcommune gallery. PHOTO: ARTCOMMUNE GALLERY

SINGAPORE - It is not a scene from a horror movie. But it is about horror nonetheless. The artist Wong Keen says his installation at his latest solo exhibition is about the exploitation of animals for meat and the suppression of women throughout history. “Women have been suppressed, used like pieces of meat,” says the 80-year-old artist.

The enigmatic title of this powerful installation is Forest, comprising over 100 paintings on rice paper that look like slabs of beef in a slaughterhouse. The installation is on at artcommune gallery till Oct 31.

On closer inspection of the reverse sides, some of the slabs of meat also morph into abstract shapes of the female figure. “These are about my observations of society,” he says.

“Humans are territorial and over the years, we have not changed much. What is happening today is no different to uncivilised killing.”

There is certainly a sense of physical violence in this work; the paintings are cut out to shape with a box cutter knife with some hung from menacing hooks that look like they could be from a slasher movie.

Known for his paintings of lotus, nudes and even hamburgers, Wongs says he was able to create Forest because he is now “more mature, after struggling for over 50 years”.

The artist found fame at an early age. At 19, Wong, who had been mentored by pioneer artists Liu Kang and Chen Wen Hsi at the Chinese High School, got accepted to the prestigious Art Students League of New York. To raise funds, he held a sale of his works at an almost sell-out solo exhibition at the former National Library of Singapore. The businessman and philanthropist Lee Kong Chian bought the most expensive one for $700.

Wong left for the United States in 1961 and did odd jobs in places like Chinese restaurants to pay his way through art school. “If someone told me to clean the drains, I would clean the drains,” he recalls.

Wong Keen’s Forest  comprises over 100 paintings on rice paper that look like slabs of beef in a slaughterhouse.  ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

In 1965, he won the Edward G McDowell Travelling Scholarship that allowed him to travel in Europe and attend the St Martin’s School of Art in London for a year, after which he returned to New York.

On why he decided to live on in New York, he says: “I went for school, then a job and love came along.”

He got married, raised four kids while running a framing business, and later, an art gallery.

While he painted during this time, it was only when he turned 50 that Wong decided to become a full-time artist. In 1996, he held his first solo exhibition in Singapore after 35 years at the Takashimaya Gallery.

The artist has always been attracted to cerebral abstraction in art, first with the 17th Chinese monk, calligrapher and artist Bada Shanren, then Abstract Expressionist artists like William De Kooning. At the Art Students League of New York, he studied under other influential Abstract Expressionist artists such as Morris Kantor, Sidney Gross, Vaclav Vytlacil and Hans Hoffman.

His latest exhibition marks a culmination of Wong’s fascination with flesh, which can be traced back to visits he made to a meat market in Beijing in 2012, during an artist residency at the Galerie Urs Meile.

Together with the installation, there will also be new paintings by the artist that are priced between $45,000 and $55,000. The rice paper slabs of meat are for sale individually from $4,000 to $9,000. The artist also says that the installation is for sale as a whole, if there are any serious offers.

Artwork titled Sensual, (2022) by the artist Wong Keen, is an acrylic on rice paper painting mounted on canvas. PHOTO: ARTCOMMUNE GALLERY

Will anyone want it in their living room? “There is beauty in it too,” assures Wong.

Book it

What: Forest
Where: artcommune gallery, 76 Bras Basah Road
When: Till Oct 31, 12pm to 7pm daily
Admission: Free
Info: artcommune.com.sg

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.