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The Other Sides of Cheong Soo Pieng at artcommune’s “Tonalities”

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Fishing Village 1965, by Artist Cheong Soo Pieng

Nestled among the sprawling warehouses at Tanjong Pagar is Artspace@Helutrans, most recently transformed into a shrine to Cheong Soo Pieng’s ink works until 13 June. It’s a rare chance to check out more than 100 ink works by the famed pioneer artist, some of which have never before been seen.

So different are some of them to his iconic oeuvre of almond-eyed girls with elongated limbs, that artcommune gallery director Ho Sou Ping recalls being accused of bringing in fakes when he first showed these pieces at his gallery.

“These were folks who only knew about Soo Pieng’s 80s [style]…which I would say is quite a narrow view of Soo Pieng. And they started to say, this one fake la, this one not good… But these works come from the family [of Cheong Soo Pieng]… how to be wrong?” Ho laughs. 

Taken piecemeal, it might be hard to discern Cheong’s trajectory through art styles as varied as Fauvism, Cubism and Tachism – remixed in the hands of an accomplished Chinese ink painter. But given the sheer breadth of works in this exhibition, Cheong’s artistic evolution and accomplishments in synthesis and innovation become more apparent.

Much has already been written to make sense of Cheong’s place in history as a pioneer artist of Singapore. artcommune gallery has also published a tome to accompany this exhibition, in which historian Tan Yong Jun conducted extensive research into the context in which Cheong was creating his works back in the day. I’ll not hit you over the head with more of the same. Instead, allow me to take you through seven works from Tonalities which I found to be particularly noteworthy:

1. The One with the Gold | Resting (c.1979 – 1983)

Resting (c. 1979-83). Chinese ink and colour on silk, 68 x 95 cm.Artwork by Cheong Soo Pieng.
Resting (c. 1979-83). Chinese ink and colour on silk, 68 x 95 cm.

Let’s start on familiar ground: Resting depicts a reclining woman in Cheong’s signature style. Figure attenuated and limbs elongated, she takes her siesta upon a tikar, or traditional woven mat. She’s surrounded by decorative, patterned leaves and flowers deftly painted in Chinese ink. In short, it’s a classic Cheong Soo Pieng piece.

But what I found curious was his application of gold and silver pigment on the figure’s garments and pillow. This gentle shimmer animates the placid scene, and hints at the artist’s highly experimental attitude towards art that those who only know him through his stylised feminine forms may not be aware of.   

Resting (c. 1979-83). Chinese ink and colour on silk, 68 x 95 cm.Even her almost-colourless shawl hides a touch of silver.Artwork by Cheong Soo Pieng
Even her almost-colourless shawl hides a touch of silver.

Painting conservator Mar Gomez Lobon remarks in A Life of Experimentation: An insight into Cheong Soo Pieng’s painting materials and techniques, “He did not only go through major stylistic changes throughout his career, but he also continuously experimented with different materials, which go hand in hand with the evolution of his style and technique.”

Lobon notes that Cheong had started to use metallic gold and silver paints during the late 1960s and early 1970s as part of his metal relief works. These metallic pigments later found their way into his figurative works (as is the case here).

2. The One with the Rattan | God Bless (1982)

God Bless (1982). Chinese ink and colour on rattan mounted on cloth, 94 x 53.5 cm.Artwork by Cheong Soo Pieng
God Bless (1982). Chinese ink and colour on rattan mounted on cloth, 94 x 53.5 cm.

Having dabbled with a wide array of materials such as aluminum sheets, nails, steep pipes and cement during his period of experimentation, it perhaps stands to reason that Cheong also injected some of this innovative spirit into his ink works. God Bless features the use of woven rattan, a material indigenous to tropical Southeast Asia.

This is not the only work in Tonalities where Cheong has painted on rattan, but I find that it is his most successful. Being rough to paint on, the woven rattan tends to distort Cheong’s delicate linework. But in the case of God Bless, the brusque texture of the rattan conveys the cragginess of the cavern, and its naturally earthy colouration invokes the natural world that the painting itself depicts. Meanwhile, the literal rock face is large and caricature-like. Bursting with personality, the fearsome-looking cave holds its own against the rattan.

3. The Fauvist One | Malay Lady (c. 1950s)

Malay Lady (c. 1950s). Chinese ink and colour on paper, 67 x 67 cm. Artwork by Cheong Soo Pieng
Malay Lady (c. 1950s). Chinese ink and colour on paper, 67 x 67 cm.

Malay Lady transports us to a time in Cheong’s practice when the humans that he painted were still of a more voluptuous shape. Even then, he was already deploying his lines with economy – every line pulling its weight to articulate the subject’s form – though one observes around the woman’s forearm that Cheong was still refining his technique to achieve maximum efficacy with minimal brushstrokes.

The riot of pattern and colour on the lady’s skirt reflects the artist’s interest in the applied arts of the region. In the background, decorative patterns animate the flat lilac wall. Curator Tan Yong Jun writes, “The painting shows the influence of Henri Matisse, particularly in the way fields of primary colours are used to flatten the perspective of the image.”

This Fauvist element makes it one of his more colourful ink pieces; despite so, the white of the paper continues to peer through at various points, in keeping with many of his ink works.  

4. The One of Bras Basah | Aerial View of Bras Basah Road to the Sea (1960)

Aerial View of Bras Basah Road to the Sea (1960). Chinese ink and colour on paper, 95 x 48 cm. Artwork by Cheong Soo Pieng
Aerial View of Bras Basah Road to the Sea (1960). Chinese ink and colour on paper, 95 x 48 cm.

Could the twin church spires here belong to St. Andrew’s Cathedral? It’s difficult to tell, given the proliferation of churches in what had historically been the European part of town when Singapore was still a British colony. But the idea that Bras Basah Road once led to an open view of the ocean strikes a chord of nostalgia in me, though I am too young to remember those days.

It’s interesting to think about Cheong’s works as a record of history, but they do have an ethnographic element to them. His kampong scenes of a swiftly changing Singapore and paintings of indigenous Bornean tribes (both of which are heartily present at Tonalities) describe the lifestyle and cultures of people of the region. It’s one way of understanding his identity as a Nanyang artist.

The other, of course, is how he syncretises Western painting styles and Chinese ink techniques. One can see that in this work too, in the way that his Cubistic tendencies shine through in a medium and format that one would usually see in Chinese landscape painting.

5. The One with the Billowing Brushstrokes | Guilin (1979)

Guilin (1979). Chinese ink on paper mounted on cloth, 95 x 87 cm. Artwork by Cheong Soo Pieng
Guilin (1979). Chinese ink on paper mounted on cloth, 95 x 87 cm.

The karst peaks of Guilin are a popular subject matter in Chinese shanshui (landscape) painting, though the way that Cheong has wrought the subject matter here is less characteristic of this genre. In place of tranquil, misty scenes, the terrain here is a rugged, almost violent assortment of brushstrokes.

The artist has used cunfa techniques – dry, textural brushstrokes – of varying thickness to approximate woodland and shrubbery. Rather than an illusionistic representation of this usually idyllic landscape, Cheong with his array of textural strokes captures the wildness of nature.

The immensity of nature is made all the more apparent given the stark contrast to the boats in the water. Numerous, yet scarcely comprising more than a few thin brushstrokes, each boat seems fragile against the billowing elements. One imagines a strong wind that animates the canopy of trees, giving rise to the left-leaning brushstrokes and a general air of disquiet in Guilin.  

6. The One in Oil | Landscape No. 3 (c.1963)

Landscape No.3 (c. 1963), Oil on canvas, 71.5 x 107 cm. Artwork by Cheong Soo Pieng
Landscape No.3 (c. 1963), Oil on canvas, 71.5 x 107 cm.

One of the only oil paintings in this entire exhibition, Landscape No. 3 was included in Tonalities despite the show’s focus on Cheong’s ink works to show how the artist has adapted ink techniques to the oil medium. You can observe this in the thin washes of grey that blanket over the reddish background.

I’m inclined to call this backdrop a sky, simply because that strong black stroke across the bottom of the picture plane gives the work a sense of gravity and orientation. It transforms the abstract into something of an apocalyptic landscape.

Vigorous black brushstrokes animate this explosion, creating what is surely a surprising moment for those who might think that this pioneer artist only paints half-naked women with elongated limbs.

For those of you who love Cheong’s foray into lyrical abstraction, you’ll be pleased to know that there is a whole separate room at Tonalities dedicated to such works. Here are two of my favourites that I feel demonstrate Cheong’s mastery at creating dynamic moments in ink, and subtleties in tonality:

Dismay (1963). Chinese ink and colour on paper, 76 x 102 cm. Artwork by Cheong Soo Pieng
Dismay (1963). Chinese ink and colour on paper, 76 x 102 cm.
Abstract Composition (1962). Chinese ink and colour on paper, 68 x 44.5 cm. Artwork by Cheong Soo Pieng
Abstract Composition (1962). Chinese ink and colour on paper, 68 x 44.5 cm.

7. The One That’s Not Like the Others | Abstract Landscape (1967)

Abstract Landscape (1967). Chinese ink and colour on paper, 93.5 x 44.5 cm. Artwork by Cheong Soo Pieng
Abstract Landscape (1967). Chinese ink and colour on paper, 93.5 x 44.5 cm.

If I had to choose one work that I think might be fake, it would be this.

Of all the works present at Tonalities, this is perhaps the most unrecognisable of the Nanyang Artist’s various styles. Though it possesses an earthy palette that is very much in line with Cheong’s other landscape pieces, Cheong’s thin, meandering lines are unexpected here where they aren’t in service of figuration.

Unlike his other abstract works, Abstract Landscape has neither the sharp, angular lines of geometric abstraction nor the free-flowing splatters of lyrical abstraction. Instead, it occupies a unique space in Cheong’s oeuvre, conjuring the sense of landscape as cartography, with thick black daubs that evoke water bodies. At the same time, the piece also recalls driftwood in large part due to the rough texture of the artist’s dry brush technique. Don’t get me wrong – I love this piece. It just doesn’t quite fit with the rest of them.

Then again, maybe this is simply another mark of the true legacy that this pioneer artist has left behind – his courage to stay curious and experimental and see where that took him. This might mean some left turns – tentative forays into roads eventually not taken – but it also means an exciting journey filled with aesthetic innovation and delight. Between this and having my seminal work printed on a 50-dollar bill, I’d be hard pressed to pick which I might prefer, if I were him. Thankfully for Cheong Soo Pieng, he doesn’t have to.  

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For more information on Tonalities: The Ink Works of Cheong Soo Pieng, visit the artcommune gallery website.

All images are courtesy of artcommune gallery.

Feature image: Fishing Village (1965). Chinese ink and colour on paper, 44.4 x 92.8 cm.

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