Born in Guangdong, China, in 1947, Chua Ek Kay moved to Singapore at the age of six. Under the tutelage of Chinese ink master Fan Chang Tien in Singapore, Chua invested time and energy and became adept at wielding the brush and control of ink. However, Chua did not desire to become yet another master of tradition, bound by pre-existing stylistic rules and compositional strategies. Instead, Chua sought to marry the traditional Chinese art forms he had grown to be familiar with, with the modernity that the Western theories and practices represented, in order to develop a distinct style of his own. The result of this amalgamation of seemingly opposing artistic ideologies is evident in his works, where the abstract result of his expressive and spontaneous brushwork defies the order associated with the established framework of ink painting. The present three paintings from the Archipelago series were produced in the last decade of Chua's life and can be considered the culmination of his life's work navigating the tension between the artistic differences of the East and West.
A far cry from the intricately detailed depictions of landscapes in classical ink paintings, Chua's Archipelago landscapes can be read as topographical, aerial captures of island forms in varying arrangements. In Archipelago 1, 2, & 3 , the deepest, darkest patches of black ink indicate height, while the faded surroundings extended by both wet and dry brushwork suggests the edges of the land masses blending into the water bodies that hug them on either side, marked by the subtle, translucent washes of light browns and pale blues. Chua's intention was for these island forms to be distinctly emblematic of this particular geographical location, to host the historical and socio-political narratives of significant voyages traversing the waters of the region.
Compared against Chua's earlier landscapes like Trees and Mountains 1 (2001) , the works from the Archipelago series are a manifestation of Chua's commitment to further harmonise the artistic ideas and methods of the East and West. Chua's two earlier works offer the same conventional perspective of a distant viewer gazing at the landscape from afar. However, the looser brushstrokes and seemingly careless washing of ink giving only enough visual material to hint at landforms are indicative of Chua's adoption of the Shanghai School's more emotive and expressive xieyi style, as opposed to, for instance, the refined realism of Qian Weicheng's gongbi style River Landscape (undated).
Often described as 'meditative' and 'minimalist', Chua's abstract renderings retain only the essence of the visual form, hinting at the landforms they are meant to represent. This has much to do with his artistic practice and technique. Speaking of his earlier works, Chua likened his painting process to the Buddhist observance of mindfulness. Chua begins working on an artwork by conducting thorough research on his intended subject, producing numerous preliminary sketches to internalise the subject and develop a distinct style. Then, he paints the final work with decidedly more freedom and spontaneity, allowing his 'mind's eye' to lead, thus freeing himself and his hand from any preconceived ideas. 'What was important earlier is no longer important' in the moment of the act of painting, prioritizing the present, and implicitly, the artist's presence in that instance. The painting then becomes not only an imaginary mapping of geographical landforms, but also a record of the marks made by the artist, simultaneously spontaneous yet measured in each gesture.
The Archipelago pieces, though painted at the turn of the millennium, hold more visual resemblance with contemporary paintings than with landscapes painted around the same period. Lee Ufan's Dialogue (2007) radiates a quiet and restrained energy through the mechanically aligned blocks of grey on a pristine expanse of white canvas. Aside from similar blockshaped marks on the painted surface, Lee's works share Chua's preference for a sparser composition. While Lee's decision for his marks to take up a fraction of the canvas surface may be linked to his minimalist aesthetic, the untouched space that simultaneously separates and connects the island forms in Chua's Archipelago 1, 2, & 3 are integral to the traditional practice of Chinese painting and calligraphy – these are emblematic of the free space to allow viewers to stretch their imagination and interpretation of the painting.
Even more contemporary to our time are the ink paintings of Li Huayi. Li's landscapes, as in Clear View of the Mountains (2011) , bear some resemblance to Chua's articulation of archipelagic forms in its use of dark ink washes. Beyond that, though a stunning depiction of a mysteriously misty mountainous view, Clear View of the Mountains appears closer to the classical landscapes both Li and Chua's artistic practices depart from. Clearly, Chua's artistic sensibilities were ahead of his time.
Originally created to be three independent works but brought together here to emphasize the panoramic vision of his Archipelago series, Archipelago 1, 2, & 3 embody Chua Ek Kay's commitment to extending the boundaries of traditional Chinese ink painting through innovation while retaining the spirit of the tradition, exemplifying the success of his experimentations and the timeless appeal of his creative expressions.