Diversity in ink

More than 100 ink works by pioneer artist Cheong Soo Pieng are on show at Artspace@Helutrans

Say "Cheong Soo Pieng" and people will think of the late artist's paintings of almond-eyed Balinese women. Others will recall the 1978 work Drying Salted Fish, which appears on the back of Singapore's $50 note.

But the pioneer master's practice was more diverse and innovative than casual observers give him credit for.

"People always think of Soo Pieng's art as one of two types - the 1950s Nanyang style or the thin-limbed Balinese ladies," says Mr Ho Sou Ping, 49, founder of Artcommune gallery. "That's only like 5 per cent of his practice. People have a superficial view of Soo Pieng, but his work is so rich, so diverse."

To encourage the public to learn more about this pioneer Singapore artist, Mr Ho's gallery is mounting a retrospective of more than 100 of Cheong's ink works.

Tonalities: The Ink Works Of Cheong Soo Pieng opens at Artspace@Helutrans in Tanjong Pagar Distripark tomorrow and runs till June 13.

In recent years, a number of the master's classicist ink paintings from 1978 to 1982 - on paper, silk, cloth and canvas - have surfaced, Mr Ho says. This allowed the gallery to do more research on this understudied phase and "flesh out a comprehensive narrative arc".

The exhibition features ink works from the early 1950s to 1983 and covering four themes - portraiture, landscape, Europe and "Nanyang scrolls". They are on loan from more than 20 collectors and nearly half are being exhibited for the first time.

Tonalities is curated by Mr Tan Yong Jun, 28. The independent researcher and curator, who recently wrote a book about the artist, says: "Cheong Soo Pieng's ink works are often overshadowed by his oil and canvas works. There's a variety of reasons for this, not least the fine arts' prejudice against paper works."

Cheong also did a lot of innovative work in oil and mixed media, metal and cloisonne in the late 1960s and early 1970s, so it is "understandable that these would define that period of Soo Pieng's career", says Mr Tan.

But the ink works from that period are "very interesting", he says. "His kampungs became in the style of - if you want to peg it to an art movement - lyrical abstraction."

Cheong had left for Europe in 1961 under the patronage of Cathay cinema magnate Loke Wan Tho. He continued making art there, including a series of ink and oil works shown in a breakthrough solo show at London's Redfern Gallery in 1963.

  • TONALITIES: THE INK WORKS OF CHEONG SOO PIENG

  • WHERE Artspace@Helutrans, 01-05 Tanjong Pagar Distripark, 39 Keppel Road

    WHEN Tomorrow to June 13, noon to 7pm daily. The venue is closed this Saturday for a private event. Public tours will run on May 22, 23, 29 and 30 at 2 to 3pm. To register, e-mail valerie@artcommune.com.sg

    ADMISSION Free

    INFO Go to artcommune.com.sg. The hardcover publication Tonalities: The Ink Works Of Cheong Soo Pieng ($100) by Tan Yong Jun is available for purchase at Artcommune gallery at Carlton Hotel Singapore, as well as at Artspace@Helutrans, during the exhibition

Artist Cheong Soo Pieng, in a picture taken in 1969. (Top) New Beginning (c. 1962), Chinese ink and colour on paper (Above) Sarawak Life (1964), Chinese ink and colour on paper (Right) God Bless (1982), Chinese ink and colour on rattan mounted on clo
Artist Cheong Soo Pieng, in a picture taken in 1969. PHOTO: ST FILE

The Europe works are also known as the "Zao Wou-Ki series" - given their similarities with works by the Chinese-French artist - and are shown alongside old sketches, news articles and other contemporary material in the Artcommune show.

"Before this, Soo Pieng's works were more strict in formalism and adhered to received ideas about modern painting," says Mr Tan. "After that, his vision was broadened and he became comfortable seeking his own painterly road to modernity."

Back in Singapore in 1963, he moved away from his Cubist styles of the 1950s and painted kampungs that were atmospheric rather than realistic.

Mr Tan calls them "surrealist-inspired mindscapes". The artist, he adds, could have been hinting that such scenes, amid the rapid urbanisation of Singapore, were present only in his mind.

Cheong has long been hailed as one of Singapore's greatest artists.

He was born in Amoy, China, in 1917. He migrated to Singapore in 1946 at the age of 29 and taught at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

Like other pioneer artists, he often painted in the Nanyang style, an East-meets-West aesthetic associated with artists from South-east Asia.

He was inspired by his travels, not just by the Europe trip, but also a seminal 1952 journey to Bali with fellow artists Liu Kang, Chen Wen Hsi and Chen Chong Swee, as well as a stay in a Borneo longhouse in 1959 that sparked a lifelong interest in the indigenous Dayak people.

His paintings of the Dayak people are shown in the exhibition.

Mr Tan, comparing them with the Balinese figures, thinks they show a deeper understanding of local culture. "He had a very clear, concise and accurate idea of each Dayak tribe he painted. We could identify whether he was painting the Iban or Kenyah (tribes) based on the patterns they were wearing or the architecture of the long house."

Cheong received many plaudits in his lifetime, including the Meritorious Service Medal for his contributions to Singapore art.

After embarking on a return trip to China in 1979, he delved deeper into Song Dynasty aesthetics in paintings that reimagined Chinese classicism. He also rolled out a series of Nanyang scrolls, which were often painted on South-east Asian materials such as rattan.

"Arts of the 1980s should include applied arts, include the representative arts of the Nanyang," Cheong wrote in a 1980 article in Chinese daily Sin Chew Jit Poh.

He added: "The only way for a Nanyang style to emerge is to start working from these materials."

Versatile artist a man of few words

In 1983, the National Museum Art Gallery organised a retrospective of Cheong's works.

Sadly, he did not live to see it. Four months before the exhibition, he died of heart failure at the age of 66.

In an article several months after his death, his second son Cheong Teng remarked: "Out of 365 days of the year, he painted 360."

The late artist was famously reticent - a journalist's nightmare, suggests one 1983 Straits Times article.

"He was a man of few words, he didn't talk much," former student Lin Hsin Hsin was quoted in the piece as saying. "He did visual thinking and only talked when very interested in the subject."

Lin, 69, is now a veteran digital artist whose works are part of ongoing National Gallery Singapore exhibition Something New Must Turn Up.

One of the challenges scholars face when they study Cheong is a dearth of primary information.

Mr Tan says: "Until now, we have discovered a grand total of one article by him - as opposed to Liu Kang and Chen Chong Swee's writings, which have been made into books, or Chen Wen Hsi's lengthy oral histories. He was most comfortable explaining himself in his paintings."

One of the art collectors who contributed to the show is Mr Francis Choo, 62, who lent the 1959 Borneo-inspired Long House.

"It struck me as a very typical Cheong Soo Pieng composition - very well-composed, extremely sensitive to the subject matter," says the vice-president of a multinational IT company.

"Cheong Soo Pieng is very versatile. He is probably the most well-rounded artist Singapore has produced," he adds.

Prominent architect and art lover Koh Seow Chuan notes the use of negative space in Cheong's 1980s Chinese ink paintings.

"He wanted to explore the limits of Song dynasty composition, of positiveness and negativeness, and how they coexist to make a painting you can meditate on," says Mr Koh in a video posted by the gallery. "Beyond the visual - spiritual."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 13, 2021, with the headline 'Diversity in ink'. Subscribe