1Tracy Tan, 'Soo Pieng in Nanyang', Soo Pieng, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Singapore, 2013, p. 2
Lauded as a pioneering artist determined to find the cutting edge results of artistic experimentation, Cheong Soo Pieng was arguably one of the most avant-garde figures in Asia practicing during the second half of the 20th century. Standing as a vanguard of the Nanyang Art movement, the Amoy-born painter, Cheong Soo Pieng, is arguably the most versatile Singaporean artist of his generation, and to date, one of the most commercially successful. Working alongside other artists such as Chen Wen Hsi, Chen Chong Swee, Liu Kang and Georgette Chen, Soo Pieng was at the centre of what came to be a flourishing of styles that identified Chinese immigrant artists who were working in Southeast Asia.
The artist moved permanently to Singapore in 1940 and dedicated the rest of his artistic career to constant trial and error with a multitude of techniques and mediums. While the artist’s versatility meant he was not attached to a single painterly style, he was known to adapt several principles from both Chinese and Western schools of thought. He eventually developed a highly sophisticated conception of composition, finding inspiration in indigenous subject matters and bearing witness to local contexts.
Inconspicuous in the given work’s title is the artist’s explicit commitment to breakthroughs –in artistic, philosophical, physical and socials realms. Progress encapsulates the thoughts of an artist, indeed an intellectual leader, with incredible foresight. The overall monochromatic palette lends viewers an opportunity to focus and meditate on the contemplative formulas Soo Pieng has rendered upon the canvas – they are at once suggestive of natural objects and perceptive of our habitual hunt for the recognizable.
Analytical yet sublime in its beauty, the painting shows how Soo Pieng navigated and made headway amidst the landscape of a dramatically changing country and the larger context of a post-war continent. Conceived in 1976, Progress ushers in Soo Pieng’s mature abstract period, making manifest the accumulated lessons from his forays into the looser brushwork in the 1960s and his obsessive inquisition into metal and industrial constructions in the early 1970s.
A trip to Europe in 1961 generated a new form of artistic expression that took Soo Pieng on a journey of new frontiers. Upon returning to Singapore in the early 1960s, Soo Pieng shifted away from representational subject matter in his art and was determined to invent a new language of abstraction that portrayed the mystery and grandiosity of nature and the cosmos. Progress provides insight into the immensely poetic nature of the maestro’s evolving artistic identity and hails from a pivotal period of Soo Pieng’s career where ideas from the schools of Abstract Expressionism, Color Field and Fauvism were already prevalent, prompting him to dive even further into pure form and construction.
The present work can be broadly divided into two zones – the upper, minimalist section and the lower quadrants that fragment into fascinating detail. The hovering rectangle of translucent grey is reminiscent of Rothko’s illusive fields, alluding to the power of pure color and form. These juxtaposed regions not only serve to balance out the composition but also reference a horizon line. Soo Pieng fills the bottom half of the canvas with overlapping and colliding organic or geometric forms that seem to both rise and recede within the pictorial space simultaneously. The center of the work is illuminated with darker contrasts of black pigment, as well as a large circle, suggestive of a simplified impression of a sun which serves as the nucleus of the composition.
The other smallerabstract elements seem to orbit this ‘sun’ conjure a harmonic dance. These bold shapes are juxtaposed compactly together thus creating a sense of visual tension at the same time. In this manner, Soo Pieng reinvents selectprinciples of shan shui (Chinese landscape painting) which emphasizes the importance of having a central focal point to a work. Akin to the medium of Chinese inks, the artist paints with diluted layers, which manifests a sense of airiness to the otherwise slick and hefty medium of oil paint. Yet at the very bottom of the canvas, he conceals the underlying forms in a dark cloud, as if to give weight the overall organizational scheme. The artist’s fusion of East and West exemplifies his prowess in consolidating vastly different mediums and styles, presenting something palpably radical.
For followers of Soo Pieng, Progress is a truly majestic painting, emblematic of a multifaceted artist’s legacy seeking to explore spiritual dimensions and expand his artistic repertoire.
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