Just as he strove to continuously search for the best means to portray what he felt was the essential beauty of the indigenous peoples of Southeast Asia, Cheong’s abstract period represents a desire to convey the essence of landscapes and ideas. In 1963, Cheong Soo Pieng was featured in a seminal exhibition at the Redfern Gallery on Cork Street in London, where he showcased what has now come to be referred to as his London-period abstracts. The selection of works displayed Cheong’s bold artistic vision and superb grasp of his artistic technique.
Within the powerful swathes of crimson, deep blues and blacks, that formed the background of most of the canvases, flecks of brighter tones conveyed a surety and lightness of the artist’s brush. Working contemporaneously with Zao Wou-Ki, who exhibited at the Redfern Gallery later that same year, Cheong was part of pioneering a particular style of Sino-Western abstract painting. Always featuring the suggestion of a rising or setting sun or moon – symbols of the cycle of life and death, Cheong’s works from this period evoke a sense of mediation and immersion within the scene. Cheong produced a handful of monumental triptychs in the style of the present lot, Nature (Lot 385), and these works express his preoccupation at the time with the theme of nature, and of man’s relationship with it. The abstracts of the 1960s succeed in maintaining a tension between the feeling of being simultaneously overwhelmed and calmed by the immensity of nature.
The background of Nature is comprised with an elegant shade of deep blue – referencing both sea and sky in one subtle shade. Melding into the central band of diffuse black paint, Cheong shows a technical mastery of shade and tonality. Hints of crimson and turquoise interact with each other in the centre of the painting, creating a dynamic centre upon which we fix our gaze. Overhead hangs a single white orb, perhaps, a moon, whose pure white is mistily reflected in the centre of the painting through a series of expressionistic paint splatters.
Fluid bands of lighter blue and white run across the top and bottom of the canvas, framing the composition in typical style. The use of horizontal bands to demarcate the edges of a canvas was used by Cheong increasingly in both the abstract as well as figurative works produced in the 1970s, and can be traced back to the abstracts produced in the 1960s. Nature is an exquisite example of abstract works on oil from this period. As Cheong executed only a limited number of such canvases, and later moved on to other modes of abstraction upon his return to Singapore, examples from this period of Cheong’s career are exceptionally rare and precious.
The abstract works from the 1960s, more than any other period in Cheong’s work, are part of the most significant stylistic break that Cheong would bravely embark upon. His trip to London inspired an entirely new means of artistic expression completely separate from the figurative tradition that Cheong had up till that point been focused on, and it is to his merit that he was able to seamlessly integrate both Western and Eastern forms of abstraction into his own distinctive style.