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CHEONG SOO PIENG (SINGAPORE, 1917-1983)
Sisters
signed in Chinese (lower left); signed, dated '1972', and titled 'Sisters' (on the reverse)
mixed media on board
93 x 67 cm. (36 5/8 x 26 3/8 in.)
Executed in 1972
Provenance
Private Collection, Asia

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Jessica Hsu
Jessica Hsu

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Lot Essay

Cheong Soo Pieng was born in Xiamen, China (1917 – 1983), emigrating by way of Hong Kong in 1946, he arrived in Singapore in 1947. His legacy of artworks in many media and expressions has been documented in numerous museum and gallery exhibitions, and a good number of authoritative publications. An important modern artist of the post-war Chinese diaspora, Soo Pieng's output was the most inventive and thoughtful of all his peers who emigrated to Southeast Asia. Perhaps it was the richly melded heritage of Southeast Asia that affected Soo Pieng's sensibilities to such an excess of creativity, but it can be said that of all the much-lauded Nanyang artists, Soo Pieng was the one who creatively developed the most varied and intelligent bodies of work. One can almost not find an artwork by Soo Pieng whose composition, subjects, materials and textures had not been conceived in a considered manner.

The eight artworks by Cheong Soo Pieng presented here may each be said to be representative of some of the major developments in the artist's career. Several of the works presented here show the artist's fascination with batik and the process of its production. Working (Lot 548), the oil painting of three women working on batik is issued from many studies that Soo Pieng had made of the process. The painting possesses the earthy qualities of people at labour, a topical issue of the 1950s and typical of Soo Pieng's humanist interests. With Two Ladies (Lot 549), the batik sarongs of the women are for the painting. Where Soo Pieng has drawn from background textural elements of Song dynasty paintings, and also the painted gilded finishes that resemble Madonna icons, the designs of their batiks seem to be from a more ancient source. Whilst their colours are the colours of traditional batiks, the graphics appear to be a play of primitive motifs, as if intertwining the ancient histories of China and the Nanyang.

Well-known for his experimentation with materials, Soo Pieng incorporated the designs of copper batik stamps or batik cap into several series of works. The figurative painting with copper relief Sisters (Lot 550) recalls the artistry of the batik methodology. It is another device by Soo Pieng to create the "painting within the painting". This device is also seen in the abstract pieces here.

His abstract cubist-styled paintings were developed in much of the 1970s. The two abstract relief works (Lot 553 and 554) again employ the design of copper batik stamps, but this time as a finely detailed, primitive iconology. One depicts a landscape and the other is representative of a person. This latter piece Green Construction (Lot 552) bears resemblance in composition and treatment to his 1974 iconic works representing his three children, although it is unclear here whether there was any specific person that Soo Pieng had in mind then. It is wonderfully detailed, where every square contains the microcosm of little art worlds. The composition of Landscape (Lot 553) has been defined from earlier works, similar to Scene (Lot 555), a beautiful, moody depiction of stilt houses over a river.

Of much interest to collectors too, the Vermillion Abstract (Lot 554) has a fine provenance originally sourced from the Redfern Gallery, London, where Soo Pieng held his seminal abstract painting exhibition in the same year. It is the opinion of many that the paintings from this series of works represent an important milestone for Soo Pieng's works in abstraction.

"I have landscapes or figures in my mind, and as I work, they become abstract." - Cheong Soo Pieng

Arguably the most prolific Singapore pioneer artist, Cheong Soo Pieng's extensive oeuvre showcases the versatility and boldness that characterised his artistic practice. Cheong desired for his works to be radically Singaporean, reflecting the country's position as a melting pot of cultural influences, while maintaining a strong connection to his Eastern ancestry.

An exquisite work of abstraction, Green Construction (Lot 552) seems a clear and distinctive separation from his celebrated figurative paintings of Balinese women that typify most of his output prior to the early 1960s. From 1961 to 1963, Cheong was travelling through Europe, exhibiting his works at the local galleries. It was during this time that Cheong began to experiment more daringly with abstraction, indubitably exhilarated by the works of the Western artists he encountered during his travels. Eventually, he would develop these influences into his own brand of abstract art, demonstrating his keen grasp of Western art history as he manipulates the freedom afforded by abstraction to capture the essence of the world around him.

Suspended in the uppermost section, Cheong places a lone circle that is symbolic of the sun. It provides a focal point for the viewer in the quiet of the sky, a sharp contrast to the dynamic movement congregating around the middle of the canvas. Flanking the central portion of the work, the two vertical sections on either side appear to pulsate intensely with the geometric shapes that have been packed in. Visually, it is a clear homage to the Cubist compositions of Paul Klee and Piet Mondrian. However, this dynamic movement is a product of Cheong's astute management of the tension between intuition and planned structure. He creates depth in his variation of tones - ranging from bright chartreuse to deep emerald, rich jade to glittering malachite, to term them "green" would be a gross simplification of the elegant nuances that Cheong's choices afford the eye.

Three distinct forms are arranged down the centre of the painting. Together, they appear to be elements of a deconstructed landscape, pulled out of context to be regarded with fresh eyes. Scrawled upon the surface of most of this section is the raised linework of an intricate design, similar to the batik patterns that would feature on the skirts of Cheong's later figurative paintings, or even the delicate carvings on a piece of Chinese jade.

Despite being a confluence of several sources of inspiration, Cheong's re-invention of space using grid-like lines simultaneously contains the chaos of supposed spontaneity while bringing harmony to what is otherwise a picture of disparate forms and patterns. Green Construction is a stunning work that is depictive of Cheong's persistence in exploring new dimensions in his practice, as he continued to synthesise the elements and ideologies of Eastern and Western art forms in the development of his artistic practice.

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