If you are new to the late artist Chen Wen Hsi and his body of works, then the display of playful gibbons over at Merlin Gallery (Dr. Chen Wen Hsi Art Museum) will be a decent starting point for you as the subject matter is one typically associated with the artist’s body of works.
The exhibition is the tenth installment in the long-running series, Appreciating the Art of Dr. Chen Wen Hsi, put up by Merlin Gallery owner and director Johnny Quek. The 26 ink paintings on show, like all the others that came before it, are from Quek’s own extensive collection of the artist’s works which he rotates periodically – an enterprise incomprehensible to most until it hits home that this is the private collector who practically has the market (on Chen Wen Hsi’s work) cornered. Quek even takes it upon himself to issue certificates of authentication of the artist’s works in the face of rising numbers of Chen Wen Hsi fakes, an unpalatable facet of the art market that has embroiled even major players like the National Gallery Singapore.
Right off the bat, here’s a word of caution: given the show’s very limited breadth and scope, do not turn up expecting an everything-you-wanted-to-know-about-Chen-Wen-Hsi experience from this one small display. The gibbon paintings while popular, make up merely a fragment of the artist’s rather diverse body of works.
Also, do not turn up expecting a grand exhibition setting along the same vein as the glitzy and upmarket commercial galleries that line Gillman Barracks. The exhibition, if we even want to call it that, is simply set-up in a small (though cozy) space that is physically linked to Merlin Framemaker, a framing store also owned by Mr. Quek. In all, the rather unostentatious gallery is devoid of the feel of a formal exhibition space. The ink paintings are also displayed without any accompanying gallery labels (although, in all fairness, Chen Wen Hsi’s works are mostly untitled and undated). So, unless you are a connoisseur of Chen Wen Hsi’s works, it is impossible to trace any evolution in painting styles where the depiction of these gibbons is concerned.
Still, do not let the exhibition’s apparent lack of depth stop you from taking a closer look at the gibbons that grace our wallets and pockets. For those not in-the-know, in 1999, Chen Wen Hsi’s Two Gibbons Amidst Vines was chosen to be featured on Singapore’s fifty-dollar note, alongside Cheong Soo Pieng’s Drying Salted Fish. These two artists, together with Liu Kang and Chen Chong Swee were indelibly anointed as pioneers of the Nanyang style and the founding fathers of Modern Art in Singapore, chiefly by art critic T.K. Sabapathy during the late 1970s.
‘Action’ seems to be the operative word for all the 26 ink paintings on display. The gibbons featured are represented in all manner of playfulness, sometimes hanging on a branch or swinging off one, and at other times in the act of clambering up a tree trunk. Chen Wen Hsi’s ability to imbue his pieces with the energy (or chi in Mandarin) that these gibbons are believed to radiate is unquestionable – you can sense their vigour and spark even when they are depicted in repose. Those that are seated, keenly observe other fellow gibbons or closely study us viewers with their penetrative stares.
Word has it that in his earlier portrayals of gibbons, Chen Wen Hsi misrepresented the animals by portraying them with long tails, for he apparently had never seen one before, and was likely to have based his representation on erroneous earlier works by other Chinese artists.
Chen Wen Hsi eventually came into ownership of a gibbon that he kept as a pet at his home, an opportunity that allowed him to closely study the animal. The obsession shown by the artist towards the animal was not unusual. Gibbons have traditionally been held in high regard in ancient Chinese culture, their depictions found in both literature and art. Not only were gibbons regarded as noble, but their haunting calls also came to stand for the melancholy felt by travellers longing for home. This association would have resonated well with Chen Wen Hsi, himself a sojourner long away from home.
The black of the Chinese ink in these works is sometimes accompanied by subtle shades of brown that make up tree trunks or the skin of gibbons showing through black fur. Oftentimes, dabs and strokes of red that form the flowers alongside the occasional green of leaves, interrupt the monochromatic aspects of the works. All these muted tones come together to suffuse the ink works with a harmonious feel.
It is easy to get lost in Chen Wen Hsi’s skillful handling of the brush in depicting the gibbons’ fur. The artist alternates between fine and broad brushstrokes as well as between wet and dry ones, all to different effect. Sometimes, all these different brush strokes can be found on the body of a single gibbon, enhancing its three-dimensional quality. At other times, they are applied separately on different gibbons.
It is truly amazing how these variations in brushstrokes, where the fur is concerned, imbue these gibbons with individuality.