Audio (English): Cheong Soo Pieng, Abstract Triptych
Audio (Chinese): Cheong Soo Pieng, Abstract Triptych
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CHEONG SOO PIENG (Singaporean, 1917-1983)

Abstract Triptych

(Singaporean, 1917-1983)
Abstract Triptych
signed in Chinese (lower right); signed and dated 'Soo Pieng 1963' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
Painted in 1963
each: 127 x 92 cm. (50 x 36 1/4 in.)
overall: 127 x 276 cm. (50 x 108 5/8 in.)
Redfern Gallery, London, UK
Private Collection, London, UK
Private Collection, New Zealand
London, United Kingdom, Redfern Gallery, Cheong Soo Pieng, 23 April-17 May 1963.

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Lot Essay

Reinventing Shan Shui Painting

Cheong Soo Pieng was born in 1917, Xiamen, China. After graduating in 1935 from the Xiamen Academy of Fine Arts, he furthered his studies at the Xin Hua Academy of Fine Arts, a more prestigious art academy in Shanghai offering a similar art curriculum that offered an education in both Western and Chinese art forms. His formative years in these academies would prove critical in Soo Pieng's later artistic development when he arrived in Singapore in 1946 that was influenced by sources from three traditions: Western easel painting conventions, Chinese ink painting pictorial formats and techniques, with local subject matter and materials.

Cheong Soo Pieng's artistic development had always been closely linked to his sojourns. His travels to different places and cultures in Southeast Asia and Europe were visual sources of inspiration for many of his works. Europe offered him more visual and intellectual inspiration to absorb and synthesize the visual sources from artists such as Picasso, Matisse, Ben Nicholson, Piet Mondrian and Henry Moore along with traditional Chinese ink painting (Fig. 1). His sojourn to Europe marked the start of new experimentations in abstraction and his brief departure from figuration.

In 1963, the renowned Redfern Gallery at Cork Street, London organised two exhibitions by what would be two exceptional Asian-Chinese artists. Cheong Soo Pieng's exhibition at the Redfern Gallery was from 23 April to May 17 while Zao Wou-Ki's exhibition stretched from 29 October to 29 November in the same year. Soo Pieng's enjoyed tremendous success in London, as described by Loke Wan Tho, who was Soo Pieng's patron, and founder of the Cathay Organisation in Singapore and Malaysia. In his foreword to Soo Pieng's 1963 Singapore exhibition catalogue, Loke Wan Tho acknowledged Soo Pieng's achievements from his sojourn to Europe in glowing terms, "The high hopes we all had when he left here (Singapore) in October, 1961 was amply justified, and the three major exhibitions he held were successful and aroused considerable interest.

The first of these exhibitions was held in the Bond Street Galleries of Fost & Reed in London in March 1962; 580 guests attended the private view. His second exhibition was held in the Galerie Schoninger, Munich, in November 1962, and finally, just before he returned, Soo Pieng's work was exhibited at the famous Redfern Gallery in Cork Street London from, April 23rd to May 17th.

Abstract Triptych (Lot 14) is a painting of exceptional quality on two aspects. The first aspect is the scale of the painting. This work is, by far, one of Soo Pieng's largest abstract paintings, which is art historically significant as his contemporaries like Zao Wou-Ki are known to paint large scale abstract paintings (Fig. 2). Scale matters as it is significantly more difficult for a painter to execute a large abstract work that retains the energy of brushstrokes while maintaining a balanced composition. Scale is an intimidating challenge for any painter and Abstract Triptych sufficiently demonstrates Soo Pieng's ability to handle a work of this magnitude comparable to his contemporaries. Based on the dating of Abstract Triptych as being painted in 1963, this painting was probably shown at Soo Pieng's solo exhibition at the Redfern Gallery. Most of his other abstract paintings on display in this exhibition were relatively smaller works but sufficiently demonstrates the diversity and ability to surmount the challenge that scale brings.

The second aspect concerns how this work reinvents the genre of Chinese landscape painting or Shan Shui painting. Most of Soo Pieng's abstract paintings draw from Chinese landscape ink painting traditions. He reinvents this pictorial tradition by reinterpreting the three elements of balance, form and composition in Shan Shui paintings. Instead of meandering visual markers such as rivers and pathways that Shan Shui paintings adopt to guide the viewer on a metaphysical journey from the earthly world to a higher one usually marked by a mountain or the sun, Soo Pieng uses energetic calligraphic brushstrokes using the medium of oil that are gestural yet at the same time, as spontaneous and unpredictable as nature is. The mountains in Shan Shui paintings melt into rapid and confident brushwork that create layers of overlapping distinct and amorphous forms of shifting tones. While Shan Shui painting rejects colour, Soo Pieng embraces it by mustering shades of orange and black that clash and collide with each other to create the perception of visual tension. Shan Shui paintings often lead viewers to the threshold or climax that is often located at the heights of the mountain. Soo Pieng reinvents this pictorial convention by using a constant state of visual tension through dynamic forms manifested through splashes of paint that are unstable yet full of vigour.

Shan Shui pictorial conventions tend to lead all elements to a focal point. Soo Pieng provides the viewer with such a focal point at the centre of this painting as a circular form whereby splashes of paint appear to swirl similar to how the earth orbits around the sun. What is remarkable is how Soo Pieng creates a second focal point in the form of a seed-like reddish form just above the main focal point on the left, creating a dialogue between the two foci without surrendering to an easy resolution of a single focal point for the viewer.
Like Zao Wou-Ki, Soo Pieng was influenced by Paul Klee, and so began to experiment beyond Abstract Triptych by incorporating elements of design, as well as surrealistic forms and lines that reconfigured space in relation to patterns that was further developed in the 1970s (Fig. 3). His series of abstract works in the 1960s formed the basis in which he could further his formal experimentations that revealed visions of his inner world. Soo Pieng's sojourn to Europe provided him with new pictorial visions that resulted in his experimentations seen in his reinvention of Shan Shui painting into abstracted forms. More importantly, Europe marked the beginning of Soo Pieng as an international artist who had crossed borders, both nationally and regionally into the realm of the global. His artistic practice is transcultural, as he hybridized and appropriated pictorial conventions from easel painting and the School of Paris and Chinese ink painting to create a new pictorial language (Fig. 4).

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