One of the most experimental and influential Southeast Asian artists of his generation, Cheong Soo Pieng produced works that pushed the boundaries of art-making. The Singaporean artist drew from a wide variety of cultural sources from East and West, using both classical Chinese art and Western abstraction to create a pictorial language unique to Southeast Asia. The desire to experiment meant he developed fresh styles, motifs and symbols, breaking new ground in abstract and figurative art.
The exhibition Bridging Worlds, held at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), celebrates his achievements and examines his creative process as well as his sources of inspiration and his influence. It consists of more than 300 drawings, sketches and artworks, many shown publicly for the first time. Cheong, who was born in Xiamen, China and moved to Singapore in 1946, died in 1983 at the age of 66.
Bridging Worlds is a special research exhibition by the National Art Gallery, Singapore, held on the premises of SAM until Dec 26, 2010.
Left: Weavers, Oil on canvas, 1981
Cheong is perhaps most famous for depicting idyllic village life in places such as Bali and Borneo. While he experimented with everything from Chinese calligraphy to abstract expressionism to metal reliefs throughout his life, he is probably best known for highly stylised works such as these, which have an elaborate yet gently dreamlike, almost musical quality. Such works tended to draw heavily from the traditions of Hindu and Buddhist art, as well as Malay and Indonesian batik-making.
Cheong’s paintings of Balinese life, of which Weavers is an example, sprung from a seminal trip he made to the Indonesian island in 1952 along with three other Singapore pioneer artists – Chen Chong Swee, Chen Wen His and Liu Kiang.
Notes by Clarissa Tan, with reference to the monograph Visions of Southeast Asia, written by Yeo Wei Wei, with Seng Yu Jin and Grace Tng.
Oil on canvas, 1981
This painting is an example of Cheong’s framing within a frame, an indication to the viewer that what you see is not necessarily “reality” but rather a conscious effort by the artist to create new worlds. “This alerts the viewer to the subjectivity of the artist’s depiction of the Kayan, drawing our attention to his representations of Bali as a social construct.” – Visions of Southeast Asia
Oil on canvas laid on masonite, 1959
This painting shows Cheong’s lifelong preoccupation with Western abstraction, and with the use of blocks of strong colour. The white outline of the animals and other objects also show the influence of batik painting. This depiction of three goats reveals that the artist was just as interested in the everyday and the seemingly mundane, as well as with the grand, the lyrical and the stylised. Cheong’s many sketches reveal his obsession with rubbish dumps, street life, domesticity and farmyard animals.
Oil on board, 1950
Cheong painted many portraits of women, in highly contrasting styles. This painting, with its use of fragmentation to suggest multiple perspectives, shows his experimentation with Cubism.
Oil on canvas, 1955
“Cubism in Soo Pieng’s works existed only in spirit. For they were sharply different from the works of Picasso, Braque or the other prominent exponents of Cubism. His new works convey not the startling intellectualism of the Cubists but his own exhilaration, of his own exciting and fresh responses to the exuberance of the tropical Singaporean habitat in contrast to Amoy and even Shanghai.” – Choy Weng Yang, as quoted in Visions of Southeast Asia
Metal relief, 1970
Cheong’s explorations of space culminated in his sculptures and metal reliefs as he transformed two-dimensional images into three-dimensional forms. “What you see in my metal work, you see in my watercolours. What I execute in oil is invariably reflected in my scrap-iron constructions.” – Cheong Soo Pieng
For Cheong, sculpture was “a sort of three-dimensional doodling”.
Chinese ink and colour on paper, 1961
Many of Cheong’s landscapes, such as this one, hover between the representational and the figurative. Here, we see his reliance on Chinese brushstrokes, but the grid-like composition of the scenery shows the influence of Western modernism and abstract art.
Oil on canvas, 1966
After a successful sojourn in Europe in 1961 to 1963 – where he held two solo exhibitions in London – Cheong’s works, especially his landscapes, became increasingly abstract.
Chinese ink and watercolour on cloth, 1978
Perhaps the most iconic of Cheong’s paintings, Drying Salted Fish is today found on the back of Singapore’s $50 note. Done with the delicacy of a Chinese classical ink painting, it depicts a typical Singaporean market scene. The influence of Western art is also unmistakable in the focus on human figures, rather than on Nature (as in the Chinese tradition). Meanwhile, the lattice-work of fronds in the right foreground recall the intricacy of batik and other traditional Southeast Asian crafts.