In The Studio: Cheong Soo Pieng Between Abstraction and Figuration

Asia Art Center
Mar 8, 2019 4:21AM

Art Basel Hong Kong 2019 | Insights 3D23

Asia Art Center presents In The Studio: Cheong Soo Pieng Between Abstraction and Figuration – an imaginary re-creation of the 1970s art studio of Cheong Soo Pieng, one of Asia’s most significant 20th-century artists. The artist’s 1970s oeuvre illustrates a modern artist at the prime of his career, ceaselessly experimenting and traversing an impressive breadth of styles and mediums with ease. Working closely with the artist’s estate to showcase over a dozen of his sculptures, relief paintings and mixed media works, the booth will present intimate and illuminating connections between artworks, archive and the artistic legacy of Cheong Soo Pieng.

Cheong Soo Pieng was born in 1917 in Xiamen, Fujian, China and passed away in 1983 in Singapore. The first wave of avant-garde artistic movements flourished in the 1930s, in cosmopolitan port cities in China like Shanghai. Cheong Soo Pieng was born of this generation, having studied at Xinhua Academy of Fine Art in Shanghai from 1936 to 1938. He left China in 1945, and came to Singapore in 1946. Alongside other émigré Chinese artists in Singapore, he was a proponent of a localised modern art movement termed Nanyang Style. Throughout his life, he worked across varied mediums and styles. In addition to numerous solo and group exhibitions internationally during his lifetime, retrospective exhibitions of Cheong Soo Pieng were held at the National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore (1983), Singapore Art Musem, Singapore (2010) and Asia Art Center, Taiwan (2017).

Image of Cheong Soo Pieng in the studio, with the exhibiting work Nature in the background.

Painted in 1965, Nature is part of Cheong Soo Pieng’s deeper immersion into abstraction, after his two-year sojourn in London and Europe from 1961-63. His ink sketches from Europe were precursors to his abstract works, which were founded on the concept of ‘nature’ and ‘landscapes’. Cheong Soo Pieng departed from his quick, impressionist ink sketches and transformed them into larger mixed media landscape abstractions. By retaining the richness of textures from his monochromatic ink exercises, his nostalgia for the vast landscapes of the West also remained.

The swirls and nebulousness of air and atmosphere in Nature illustrates Cheong Soo Pieng’s command of tonal variation, creating pictorial depth with his sensitivity to colours, layering, and the concept of liubai. In Nature, washes of colours are created from oil paint thinned down to the consistency of ink, concentrating the paint’s saturation in certain areas and not others. The negative spaces reveal the brightest golden hue – characteristic of Cheong’s paintings.

Construction from 1966 is one of the earliest examples of Cheong Soo Pieng’s explorations with form and space. Challenging his abstract paintings even further, Cheong Soo Pieng delved into sculpture and assemblage, presenting his abstract paintings in the realm of the three-dimensional.

The inclusion of mixed media materials such as industrially produced objects, scrap metals and gravel, raised questions about aesthetic as a physical presence. Hammered and manouvred into finished edges and forms, the ar tist attempts to represent these found objects, inferring that they no longer function as what it once was. Furthermore, Cheong Soo Pieng explored his viewers’ reception and perhaps resistance to the idea that found objects from daily life constitutes as art. Blurring the line between art and non-art, Construction draws strong links to movements like synthetic cubism and conceptual art that were in full swing in Europe. Presenting materials for what they are, this bold mixed media assemblage continues to stimulate and alter visual and tactile senses half a century on.

Deep Thought is a forceful, almost fearsome construction that perfectly captures the zeitgeist of its time in the late 1960s. Globally, artists working in sculpture began to be liberated from conventional mediums and started working more with industrial and found material, heralding an age where the nature of modern sculpture changed radically.

Cheong Soo Pieng found evident pleasure in coming to terms and working with these new material. Here, metal industrial rods, chains and sheets are misshapen and combined with other found objects, rendering the impression of a blighted order. Composed with an innate advanced sense of composition, Cheong Soo Pieng manages, however, to convey an unseen force that had come, and perhaps has gone, leaving in its trail entangled masses, cavities and shreds.

Like the Constructivists who came before him in the early 20th century, Cheong Soo Pieng was concerned with the particular material properties of an object, and its spatial presence. Teetering between construction an d destruction, order and disorder, Deep Thought represents the spirit, and indeed the thinking of an artist who saw and distilled the emergent concerns of modern art.

Cheong Soo Pieng is adept at creating unlimited space within the limited. An endless array of new techniques is applied to pierce through the confines of a two-dimensional canvas; wooden boards, metals along with other mixed media are used to construct three-dimensionality, and its distinct textures allow viewers to interpret and perceive his work through multiple ways and from different angles.

The artwork’s composition uses horizon line, a leitmotif in Cheong Soo Pieng’s work, with a circle to signify the sun. Beyond the horizon lies the boundless universe, the sun represents the center of the world that not only balances all worldly matters but further implies the immeasurable extent and beauty of the universe that will never cease.

During the creative process, Cheong Soo Pieng penetrated the surface using round metal nails; this gesture peers beyond the traditional viewing plane and delves deeper within the artwork to even the curvature of frame itself, allowing the supposedly limited space to reach an ever-expanding state.

The fidelity of the relief painting tradition is challenged further in Motion with the uniformity of the gold veneer on top of what could possibly a mixture of thick impasto and found objects. The tactility and the robustness of the work exude a certain primordial quality that resonates with the mysticism of Cheong Soo Pieng’s body of works.

However, eschewing from the iconicism of figurative deity figures found in traditional relief works, extraterrestrial elements that were pervasive in Cheong Soo Pieng’s 1960s works were employed in Motion instead. Strong axial lines in Motion that were referenced from the analytical cubists such as Piet Mondrian became the anchor and centre of gravity of the composition, alluding to the convergence motion of the cosmical figures in the composition.

The 1970s marks Cheong Soo Pieng’s maturity in his explorative mixed-media works. Stylistically, Cheong Soo Pieng’s departure from the abstract expressionist phase of the early 1960s is complete when one views the mixed media works of the 1970s that reveal elements of abstraction. Even as this is so, flourishes of his 1960s abstraction reappear in Radiance as seen in the gestural linework in the middle of the composition and extraterrestrial symbols at the bottom half.

In this new series, however, Cheong Soo Pieng challenges the convention of a painting with exploring the tactility and three-dimensionality of the otherwise flat medium. To achieve this quality, Cheong Soo Pieng paid homage to the art of cloisonné – an ancient Western enameling technique that was spread to Asia as early as the Yuan Dynasty (1206 AD - 1368 AD). The adaptation of this technique to Radiance results in a rugged relief with a sophisticated sheen finishing which highlights the movement and the dynamism of his composition.

Despite Cheong Soo Pieng’s breakthrough in mixed-media works, the early 1970s works also show Cheong Soo Pieng’s sense of nostalgia by his reference to his earlier Nanyang Style series with the depiction of his figurative vernacular scene in the newfound mixed-media treatment.

Malay Woman with Three Goats illustrates a lady donning a tudung - a headscarf commonly worn by Muslim ladies - and accompanied by a herd of goats that are grazing leisurely in an open field. Both the lady and the herd are stylized to akin wayang (shadow puppet) where the figures are elegantly attenuated and elongated, a signature treatment that could be observed throughout his figurative works. The composition is then adorned with a mixture of quotidian objects such as sand and small gravels with earthtone and gold pigments to create a sense of mysticism.

Malay Woman with Three Goats exemplifies Cheong Soo Pieng’s transcendant quality in manipulating humble subject matter s and materials into a lyrical masterpiece.

Nature and man are the two unchanging subject matters that reappear in Cheong Soo Pieng’s creative career. An artist’s creation is a dialogue and record between themselves and the everyday, and human being’s existential state has always been the issue that concerns Cheong Soo Pieng the most.

Cheong Soo Pieng collects abandoned objects such as metal, fishing nets, sand, linens along with material and rearranges them in an effort to document his most immediate feelings. The process of searching for abandoned objects serves as the artist’s reflection of his life. Cheong Soo Pieng’s tenacity and his continuous repurposing of abandoned objects are evident in his passion for the simple things in everyday life. Cheong Soo Pieng was situated in a time when chaos and change loom large, and technological advancement posed a drastic change on human’s everyday life.

His work from the 70’s provides glimpses into his delicate observations and records of the era, such as the ingenious approach of inserting an old Dolby cassette recorder in the color block in the center of his composition; the cassette recorder sits harmoniously with the complex composition surrounding it, implying that technology has quietly inserted itself into our everyday life and imposed a drastic change on human existence.

Cheong Soo Pieng’s artwork is filled with spontaneous lines, organic forms with altering shapes and unique geometric shapes. His composition seems effortless, boundless and transcends all rules or reason, the layered composition resembles a complex dream where the artist’s “rebellious spirit” shines and unparalleled poetic and aesthetics qualities are visible.

The extremely child-like creative style, graffiti-esque lines illustrate a dream-like space, where circles, squares, vertical and horizontal lines and many more symbols fill the page. The painting brims with dialogues of metaphors, thoughts and sur realism. Cheong Soo Pieng appears to be confronting reason and logic in search of a subconscious force to explore inner strength and secrets of visual world.

Be it on canvas, in his sketches or in this instance, on the nearly flat surface of a slab of unfired clay, Cheong Soo Pieng demonstrates a remarkable consistency of vision. The gentle arc and circle at the top half of the composition in Untitled is a leitmotif developed by the artist in the 1960s. Suspended in space, emanating mystery and universality at the same time, these abbreviated forms make cosmic references to the sun, or perhaps a full moon, and a lunar arc. The impression of a landscape is unmistakable.

The seemingly rough hewn forms in the centre of the composition are in fact 1960s and 1970s leitmotifs of the artist. Scrawled on the left is a large circular form on the left, a reference to the balls found in his figurative paintings. To its right, a thinly incised vertical line creates perspectival depth, and is clearly drawn from the mid-1960s landscapes he was painting. Then a trail of punctures mark out features of a landscape.

Untitled exemplifies how Cheong Soo Pieng remained steadfast to his visual vocabulary, across mediums and scale.

One observes in Cheong Soo Pieng’s highly stylised landscape paintings of the second half of the 1960s some irregularly shaped forms that allude to organs of the human body such as the kidney. At the same time, a slender vertical stroke becomes a leitmotif in his paintings.

As the artist continued to expand the breadth of mediums he worked in, these elements are, unsurprisingly, transposed into sculpture . A slender vertical shoot is discerned at the top half of Internal Impression, deployed as much as a element to orient the gaze of its audience as it is a leitmotif in Cheong Soo Pieng’s works.

A sense of the theatrical underlines the work. One imagines cascading waterfalls and dramatic cliff faces; the work evokes the unmistakable appearance of a classical Chinese landscape painting, with its own internal logic of flow and dynamism.

Cheong Soo Pieng looked towards the past and the primitive even as he ventured forth in unwavering pursuit of the new and the modern. As it were, it is in his three-dimensional works that one can appreciate how he drew from the wellspring of human civilization, be it in anthropomorphic Pre-Columbian era vessels, or the distinctive earthen walls and flat roofs of southwest American Pueblo dwellings.

Untitled is a hand-built ceramic piece of ambiguous form, composed of three distinct parts, each one a vessel, conjoined to a larger whole where functionality has been nullified, particularly in the gaping voids at the top and sides of the piece. It is a work that illustrates the unconventional formal explorations Cheong Soo Pieng undertook in sculpture, where the basic vessel form undergoes a metamorphosis into an objet d’art of immense curiosity.

Malay Lady recalls the characteristics of Cheong Soo Pieng’s Balinese girls, often depicted in a highly stylised form and dressed in a sarong, appearing poised and graceful. The distinctive subject matter attests to the long-standing inspiration the island of Bali had on him ever since the trip in 1952.

The sculpture’s features and body are rendered in Cheong Soo Pieng’s iconic style - highly elongated, with almond-shaped eyes inspired by Indonesian shadow puppets, wayang kulit. The artist’s emphasis on representation is strongly displayed in this sculpture – he employed strong linearity, coupled with pronounced contouring, and softened the form with the curves of the female body, constructing a pleasing and balanced form altogether. Her facial expression is soft and neutral, and her gaze is directed upwards and into the distance, akin to the faces of goddesses rendered by renaissance masters. Glazed in brilliant gold, Malay Lady basks in the light that reflects off of her, adding a divine quality to the elegantly rendered figure.

Asia Art Center