Pioneer artist Cheong Soo Pieng's abstract works on display

An untitled series of mixed media and oil on canvas works from 1974 representing pioneer artist Cheong Soo Pieng's two sons and one daughter.
An untitled series of mixed media and oil on canvas works from 1974 representing pioneer artist Cheong Soo Pieng's two sons and one daughter.PHOTOS: STPI

SINGAPORE - Mention pioneer artist Cheong Soo Pieng and many people will recall his paintings of Balinese women. Others might remember him for his Drying Salted Fish painting, which appears on the back of Singapore's $50 note.

Less known, perhaps, are the innovative techniques that went into his more abstract works, part of an upcoming exhibition at the STPI - Creative Workshop & Gallery in Robertson Quay that depicts the artist as someone working well ahead of his time.

Cheong, who is regarded as a pioneer of East-West modernism, is one of South-east Asia's most important artists from the post-war Chinese diaspora. Born in Xiamen in 1917, he immigrated to Singapore in 1946, where he taught at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts from 1947 to 1961. He died in 1983.

The exhibition, Soo Pieng: Master Of Composition, opens on Saturday and runs till March 9.

It will feature about 50 works from 1947 to 1983, which reflect Cheong's spirit of innovation and versatility.

Some of these are rarely shown in public - such as three abstract portraits of his three children, a figurative painting of a Malay Boy With Bird (1982) and several found object and earthenware sculptures.

While the artworks are on loan from Cheong's estate and private collectors, some will be for sale.

  • VIEW IT / SOO PIENG: MASTER OF COMPOSITION

  • WHERE: STPI - Creative Workshop & Gallery, 41 Robertson Quay

    WHEN: Saturday to March 9, 10am to 7pm (Mondays to Fridays) and 9am to 6pm (Saturdays). Guided tours from Jan 24 at 11.30am (Thursdays) and 2pm (Saturdays). Curator's tours will be available in Feb and March (visit the website for more information).

    ADMISSION: Free

    INFO: www.stpi.com.sg/exhibitions/soo-pieng-master-of-composition

  • BOOK IT / IN TALKS WITH: T.K. SABAPATHY

  • WHERE: STPI - Creative Workshop & Gallery, 41 Robertson Quay

    WHEN: Saturday, 3.30 to 4.30pm

    ADMISSION: Free

    INFO: Talk by art historian, curator and critic T.K. Sabapathy on Cheong Soo Pieng and his innovative composing processes. Go to www.stpi.com.sg/programmes and www.facebook.com/events/346480982604909

Veteran curator Seah Tzi-Yan, who curated the show with STPI, says: "A lot of the other artists at that time were very focused on experimenting and also creating an 'East-West art'. Many of them believed that, being Chinese artists living in this part of the world, they needed to create a new language for Chinese art to make it modern.

"Soo Pieng was really the one who went and experimented... If you look at his life's work, there was always this idea of 'How do I remake a Chinese painting so that it's a modern piece of work?'"

Many of the works on display have a contemporary feel, but were also products of their time.

The abstract portraits of his two sons and a daughter, dating back to 1974, for example, show the human figure deconstructed into geometric shapes and designs. The oil on canvas works also feature sand, resin, string and gunny sack or jute material.

"It's very 'immigrant', if you think about it," says Ms Seah, referring to the use of jute. "That was the way many people earned their living, carrying gunny sacks and bringing produce into Singapore for trade."

The exhibition has not been organised in a linear fashion because Cheong's practice did not evolve in a very straightforward way, says Ms Seah, who is also director of arts training and outreach company T.H.E.O. Arts Professionals.

Rather, works with some relation to each other are arranged so the viewer can appreciate the resonances between them. One part of the exhibition, for example, shows Cheong revisiting the kampung scene several times across the decades, through the lens of cubist-style oil compositions, Chinese ink and colour in the cubist style, abstract impressionism and, possibly, an abstract work of mixed media with aluminum relief on wood.

Ms Seah says: "The iterations seem very different, but you can see a trend of him experimenting, even with the very same thing - a Balinese woman or a kampung landscape - and sometimes he reworked and reworked them into so many iterations that it was unrecognisable."

Also on display are works that reflect Cheong's playfulness.

For example, Pose, an undated potrait of the artist's wife, features another artist's painting in the background - onto which Cheong stamped his own signature.

"It was very much of the modernist mindset - the artist being very self-conscious," says Ms Seah. "But we don't see that much in the modern artists of South-east Asia, except in Soo Pieng."

STPI's gallery director Rita Targui says the exhibition "aims to give a glimpse into the versatility of this artist, who was not afraid to express a new visual language of his time".

She adds: "I think it will be a good anchor in the Singapore Art Week series of activities and events, which may be more focused on contemporary works and not so much modern ones."