What collecting Cheong Soo Pieng’s art taught Esplanade’s architect Koh Seow Chuan

SINGAPORE – Pioneer architect Koh Seow Chuan, 84, is observing a selection of his vast collection of Nanyang artist Cheong Soo Pieng (1917-1983) on the walls of a private show, and asks with a note of incredulity: “Can they all be from the same hand?”

Known for his figures of long-limbed, almond-eyed Balinese women, Cheong’s artistic oeuvre is more experimental than he is given credit for.

Mr Koh, who has collected “a few hundred” of his works, knows this more intimately than most.

His collection – started more than 50 years ago – includes Cheong’s earliest expressionist portraits, made after the Xiamen-born artist arrived in Singapore in 1946 to teach at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, to mixed media landscapes – glass pounded into paint – created in his twilight years.

In between, Cheong experimented with abstract styles using materials such as scrap metal sheets, nails, wires, linen and other everyday objects to render new tactile experiences in his art.

A survey of his kaleidoscopic output is on show at a new retrospective, organised by Artcommune Gallery at Tanjong Pagar Distripark’s Artspace @ Helutrans. It opened on Saturday and runs till Oct 1.

The exhibition features more than 100 of Cheong’s works loaned from 14 art collectors, most of which come from Mr Koh and ophthalmologist Lee Hung Ming, who is sponsoring the show.

Nested within the show is a section which presents a little-known and rarely seen final turning point in Cheong’s artistic career – his take on the Song Dynasty Chinese ink painting tradition.

He had dreams of exhibiting a series of these works in post-Cultural Revolution China, but died in 1983 before the show came to fruition. He never sold these works in his lifetime, says Mr Koh, who has acquired a significant number of them.

“Whenever he felt his range was limited, he created his own medium,” says Mr Koh, who adds that Cheong was “an artist, an intellectual and a scientist”, observing that his experimental output could well be the work of “15 artists”.

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