CHEN CHENG MEI (1927-2020)
signed with artist’s alternative name and dated ‘Tan Seah Boey 62’ (lower left)
oil on canvas
76 x 50 cm. (29 7/8 x 19 5/8 in.)
Painted in 1962
Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner
Private Collection, Asia
Landmark Books, Odyssey: Oil Works Chen Cheng Mei, Singapore, 2008 (illustrated, colourplate 56).

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Lot Essay

Christie's is proud to present for the first time a group of works by Chen Cheng Mei, also known as Tan Seah Boey. She was an artist with an inimitable style that has come to define a period from the Nanyang style of painting that emerged out of the Southeast Asian region. She is fondly remembered as the woman behind the Ten Men Art Group – a loose collective of Singapore artists who journeyed across Asia in the 1960s and 70s, capturing the distinct cultures, while simultaneously exploring affinities shared across diverse cultures and geographies, led initially by Chen and later by another contemporary, Yeh Chi Wei.

Early in her career, Chen became highly influenced by her senior tutor at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Cheong Soo Pieng, who as a pioneer in the Nanyang style of painting, had himself undertaken a seminal trip to Bali in 1952 with his contemporaries. Having been a western painting major, Chen was enthralled by the lack of predisposition that Cheong had to a particular style, punctuated with his unique sense of innovation. These interactions with him were formative in developing Chen's impulse-driven, emotionally charged works, full of charisma.

In 1960, possibly influenced by Cheong, and spurred by a desire to search for new and exciting subjects to inspire her, Chen looked toward the nearby peninsula of Malaysia as an artistic destination. She took leave from her job at a bank, and embarked on an excursion in a Ford Zephyr together with three others, including artists Lim Tze Peng and Choo Keng Kwang. The works that Chen and these artists had produced on this trip fascinated other Singaporean artists, sparking the trip that began the Ten Men Art Group's first sojourn in a series of jaunts to Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, Borneo, and beyond, often returning to Singapore to exhibit the fruits of their travels. Chen's role in the Ten Men Art Group has often been marginalized in comparison to her compatriots, partly due to her reluctance to exhibit during much of her career. However, her works display no less eloquence and artistic innovation, her paintings reflecting her intrepid spirit and desire to use her art to find her place in the world; for her, they are attempts to "reveal the myriad colors and lives in those countries visited."

The three works presented this season, visually trek through her artistic development. The journey starts with Bali (1962) which was painted on a trip that followed closely from the historical 1961 expedition. Already present in this early work is her whimsical approach to colour, especially in the foliage of the trees; dabs of ochres and vermilions interlocked with shades of viridian. Works of this period were still rather experimental, and she often incorporated unconventional materials such as latex in her work. Chen's works beginning in the late 1960s display a more graphic quality, and characterized by the juxtaposition of not-quite-complementary tones, which we see at play in the foreground of Vietnam (1974). Such stylistic choices were influenced by her studies of etching and lithography at Atelier 17 with Stanley William Hayter in Paris. In a later work, Singapore River (1985), we see a more mature and confident Chen emerge, manifested in the strong delineation of lines and large blocks of bold colours with slight tonal variations accenting the planes of colour. The result is slightly nostalgic, but of an incredibly modern and experimental sensibility for her time.

Chen's sense of adventure and joie de vivre manifested in these panoramas of exotic images that represent the rich cultural diversity and history that defines the continent, revealed through her astute use of lines and colours. Throughout her life, Chen had sought to capture the visual beauty and complexity of Asia, each painting as a portal into another space and time, beyond the physical.

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