If you’ve visited well-known art institutions and museums, you’ve probably heard of the big names in contemporary art from the Western hemisphere, such as Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock. Closer to home, however, there lies an artist who is a master in his own right–Malaysia’s very own veteran contemporary art maker, Dr. Choong Kam Kow.
Dr. Choong’s CV is indeed an impressive one, as his work has been collected by major institutions all over the world. Why then does his name pop up so infrequently in Southeast Asian art historical tomes? A spokesperson from Gajah Gallery—where his works are currently being exhibited–offered the explanation that Dr. Choong’s career has seen a greater focus on teaching (at several schools in New York, Malaysia, and Singapore), as well as on the promotion of Malaysian art abroad, in his capacity as the Chairman of the Federation of Asian Artists, Malaysia Committee.
As a former dean of Fine Art Studies at LASALLE College of the Arts in Singapore, with such luminaries as Kumari Nahappan and Suzann Victor as former students, it is perhaps a homecoming of sorts, for Dr. Choong to now show his works in Singapore.
In the late 1960s, a younger Dr. Choong travelled to New York—from Perak, Malaysia—in pursuit of his Master’s degree. Growing up as a boy from a humble farmer’s family, he was bewildered by the metropolitan landscape he encountered in New York and was inspired to begin work on a series of paintings to depict the immense contrast of his hometown to New York. In the United States, Dr. Choong was surrounded by many contemporary artistic movements such as Abstract Expressionism, Conceptualism and Minimalism. These movements which were strongly associated with the New York art scene at the time, influenced his work, from his choices of colour to his use of geometrical shapes and texture.
Prior to his move, Dr. Choong had focused on painting impressionistic views of Perak. Inspired by artists such as Chen Wen Hsi and Cheong Soo Pieng, these paintings depicted the rural yet beautiful landscapes of Perak which were full of dirt roads and attap houses. The faded watercolours in these pieces lent a sense of nostalgia to the works. Dr. Choong’s early paintings verged on the edge of abstraction, foreshadowing his later shift from painting what had been in front of his eyes, to what was in his mind.
The paintings from his New York Series feature a juxtaposition of organic and textured strokes laid against geometrically perfect blocks of colour. A selection of these works are presently on display in Singapore at Gajah Gallery and I was particularly drawn to this one, titled Sidewalk Performer:
In this work, scenes of tin-mines and villages in Perak have been reduced to thick layers of paint mixed with rocks and pebbles. The work has an additional textural quality, comparable to that of rough gravel, reminding the viewer of the beauty that can lie in rustic imperfection. The artist has also managed to convey his own idea of the modernity he had encountered in New York, through the creation of painted geometric shapes in even washes of colour, located in the background of the work. Reminiscent of the stylistic touches associated with artists such as Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly, Dr. Choong’s flat, colourful shapes provide a vivid contrast to the coarse rough-hewn greys of the foreground. I was also particularly impressed by the scale of the work—notwithstanding its large size, it was not imposing. Rather, it invited me to take a closer look and to study it on a more intimate level.
In a world where different and interesting voices pop up daily—be it from TV, social media or during our own travels—the following question arises: how might we preserve the integrity of our cultural roots amidst the trends towards globalisation? Back in 1968, Dr. Choong chose to adopt Western philosophies and styles of making art but decided to tell his story from an Eastern perspective as well. Nonetheless, I believe that a work like Sidewalk Performer can be reinterpreted in many different ways—making the art not particularly Western or Eastern, but something uniquely human.
In a way, it is a reminder of the story of perpetual human migration, something that has been occurring since time immemorial. When people migrate, they bring along their existing cultural traits as well as acquire new ones. Similarly, Dr. Choong’s way of internalizing the differences he encountered in a new environment and his manner of representing them in his art, also tell us a story—one of how cultures can merge to form new ways of seeing.
Dr. Choong is currently holding his first solo exhibition in Singapore, entitled The Shape of Things: Conceptual Configurations, which runs till 10 November 2019. Sidewalk Performer is on display as part of this exhibition and can be viewed at Gajah Gallery.