Art What! Arts Preview

Art What!: Tonalities – The Ink Works of Cheong Soo Pieng

Resting, by Cheong Soo Pieng (1978-83)

This May, artcommune gallery presents Tonalities: The Ink Works of Cheong Soo Pieng. Running from 14th May to 13th June 2021 at Artspace@Helutrans, the milestone exhibition features over 100 ink works by Singapore pioneer art master Cheong Soo Pieng (1917-1983), and is the first known presentation to provide a retrospective survey of the artist’s entire body of ink work.

Curated by historian Mr. Tan Yong Jun, the showcase spans the period of 1949 to 1983, and presents an in-depth investigation into the styles and themes that mark the different periods of Soo Pieng’s career. Widely hailed as an influential Singapore artist and one of the most innovative Chinese artists of the 20th Century, Soo Pieng’s oeuvre has excited critics and collectors throughout his life, and even till today. For this exhibition, the works are loaned from a vast array of collectors, with many being exhibited for the first time.

Portrait of Three Children (1961)

Several overseas painting sojourns undertaken by Soo Pieng between the 1950s and 1970s were known to have effected distinct stylistic transitions in his artistic oeuvre. For example, the historic 1952 Bali trip with Liu Kang, Chen Wen Hsi and Chen Chong Swee culminated in the birth of a regionally influential Nanyang art style and seeded Soo Pieng’s lifelong fascination with Balinese figures and oriental motifs. His longhouse stay in Borneo in 1959 inspired a lifelong interest in styling the indigenous Dayak people in a variety of painting formats and mediums; his European trip from 1962-63 propelled him towards the realm of lyrical abstraction; and his first return trip to China in 1979 resulted in a growing number of ink works that challenged the ancient Song Dynasty classical aesthetics and reflected his new preoccupation with Chinese classicism. Through the exhibition, members of the public will now be able to closely observe and trace the developments that have shaped Soo Pieng’s remarkable ink journey.

Conversation (1952)

Notably, Cheong would also paint portraits of foreigners, almost as if to say to Singaporeans that these were people who may become your fellow citizens. These portraits were celebratory, and when it came to Sarawakians, captured distinct aspects and details of them that paid tribute to the culture, the architecture, the arts, and body modification.

Malay Ladies and Goat (undated)

Interestingly, a number of Soo Pieng’s classicist ink works – completed on paper, silk, cloth and canvas – between 1978 and 1982, have surfaced in recent years. This has allowed for a more comprehensive study of these ink works that dominated the final few years of his life, which had for a long time remained poorly understood due to the scarcity of works available for research. The exhibition aims to share new findings on this body of work, highlighting their academic significance in a local and regional context. Soo Pieng’s ‘Nanyang Scrolls’ are also examined as a critically important series in his oeuvre for the first time in this exhibition. Although the art market has had opportunities to see piecemeal examples of Soo Pieng’s ‘Nanyang Scrolls’, this is the first time they have been identified as a series, exhibited together, and placed in context of the artist’s exploration into materiality.

Abstract Study (1964)

Mr. Ho Sou Ping, Director of artcommune gallery said: “With over 100 ink works spanning the period of 1949 to 1983, this is the first exhibition to focus entirely on Cheong Soo Pieng’s ink oeuvre. Many of the works – loaned from a diverse group of collectors – are on public exhibit for the first time, allowing us to flesh out a comprehensive narrative arc that relates the distinct periods and developments in his journey.”

“In particular, the late ink works created in the final few years of Soo Pieng’s life, which had been poorly contextualised until recently, are shown together for the first time to reveal a new modern discourse steeped in Chinese classicism.”

– Mr. Ho Sou Ping, Director of artcommune gallery
Woman holding flowers (1982)

The exhibition will take visitors through a reflective journey as they travel back in time and explore Cheong Soo Pieng’s reimagining of classicism. The showcased works span themes of Portraiture, Landscapes, Europe and Nanyang Scrolls to offer visitors a deeper appreciation of Soo Pieng’s artistry.

Portrait of My Daughter, 1960, Chinese ink and colour on paper, 89.5 x 44 cm. Private Collection.

Soo Pieng’s work presents a wide range of Southeast Asian subjects, ranging from Balinese/Bornean indigenes, to Singaporean residents, and his own family members, this narrative arc examines how Soo Pieng’s gaze affected the way his subjects were pictorially represented.

Kampong Life, 1979, Chinese ink and colour on paper, 68 x 123.5 cm. Private Collection.

Soo Pieng’s use of ink carries with it the burden of a thousand-year-old landscape tradition. His landscape work took on an international slant via cubism, before repudiating received techniques in his last years. For Soo Pieng, cubism was interpreted in a way that wasn’t reliant on theoretical underpinnings, but in the idea of ‘fragmentisation’. His scrolls did this by showcasing a multitude of activities within the same scene, despite them happening at different times. In a way, it shows how even Western modernist ideas were present in our Asian artists, as they incorporated different artistic styles from different traditions.

Dismay, 1963, Chinese ink and colour on paper, 76 x 102 cm. Private Collection.

From 1962-1963, Europe was a watershed moment in Soo Pieng’s career, signalling his entry into the international post-war modernist world. Arriving in the United Kingdom in 1962, he found success with sell-out exhibitions, while also being exposed to styles that went beyond his School of Paris training, seeking out his own modernist vision. His art was primarily driven by a need to replenish the works he had previously sold, and grounded in ink expressions, due to their ability to produce and express brilliant emerging light. He also utilised a unique type of paper that allowed him more control over the ink than his usual Chinese rice paper.

Untitled (Bali), 1983, Chinese ink on rattan mounted on cloth, 96.5 x 54 cm. Private Collection.

Soo Pieng also worked with Nanyang scrolls, which are for the frist time, being presented and identified as an entire series. These scrolls saw Soo Pieng delve into the meanings of indigeneity, as represented through Southeast Asian material culture. Through these scrolls, Soo Pieng presented staunchly Southeast Asian paintings in a Sinitic format, staking his identity as a diasporic artist.

Abstract Landscape (1961)

For those interested in broadening their knowledge of Cheong Soo Pieng and his body of ink work, artcommune is launching a new bilingual (English and Chinese) hardcover publication dedicated to his ink oeuvre. Sharing the same title as the exhibition, the book is authored by the curator of the exhibition – Mr. Tan Yong Jun. Illustrated with over 200 artwork images, the essays trace the trajectories, techniques and processes that gave rise to the various ink series across Soo Pieng’s career, and is available for purchase at $100 at Artspace@Helutrans and at artcommune gallery during the course of the exhibition.

Tonalities: The Ink Works of Cheong Soo Pieng runs from 14th May to 13th June 2021 at Artspace@Helutrans, 39 Keppel Road, Singapore 089065. More information available here

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