At the forefront of innovation and experimentation, and very much part of the international movement towards abstraction that was taking place in the late 50s and early 60s, Cheong Soo Pieng is considered one of the most accomplished artists of his generation. Born in Xiamen in 1917, and eventually moving to Singapore in 1946 in the wake of social and political upheaval, Cheong became an avid traveller, and in addition to his frequent trips around the Southeast Asian region, travelled also to Europe where he both painted as well as exhibited. Cheong's story of migration and travel is one that resonates with an entire generation of ethnic Chinese artists who moved to the Southeast Asian region. Their fascination with new cultures and their ability to assimilate into a whole new environment were exemplified by their art. The development of the 'Nanyang' style of painting by first generation artists working in Singapore was a product of this keen sense of integrating their traditional training with new subjects, styles, and techniques.
Educated at the Xin Hua Academy of Fine Arts in Shanghai in Western theories of abstraction, Cubism and Surrealism, Cheong embraced the changing landscape of traditional Chinese ink painting. He brought with him to Southeast Asia a strong desire to develop his own artistic vocabulary, and his tireless efforts at artistic experimentation explain the tremendous breadth and depth of his work. Cheong was an artist whom was comfortable reworking traditional scenes of family, landscapes, and daily life across a range of media from ink and gouache on paper, to oil on canvas, to metal reliefs incorporating objet trouv . His trajectory of artistic periods cannot be mapped in a linear way, as he worked in various styles simultaneously, and often doubled-back to refine a particular style or mode of expression. Cheong's foray into abstraction was greatly inspired by his time spent in Europe from 1961 to 1963. Cheong revelled in his artistic freedom during these years in Europe, having also resigned from his teaching position at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Art in Singapore to become a full-time artist. His time spent working and exhibiting across Europe cemented Cheong's position as one of the most prolific artists from Singapore, and also earned him international renown.
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 artistic technique. Within the powerful swathes of crimson, deep blues and blacks, that formed the background of most of the canvasses, flecks of brighter tones - such as Cheong's signature gold paint - 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, a symbol of the cycle of life and death, Cheong's works from this period evoked mediation and immersion within the scene. Cheong produced a handful of monumental triptychs in the style of the present lot, Nature, and these are a testament to his preoccupation at the time with the theme of nature, and of man's relationship with it - feeling at once overwhelmed and calmed by its immensity.
An exceptional selection from Cheong's London-period abstracts, Nature is a bold and unrelenting work that commands attention to its masterful composition. The striking vermillion tone of the background, - outlined within a border of black - sets the stage for the intense culmination of colour in the centre of the canvas. A rising sun appears to cut through the swirling black landscape - illuminating purposeful and delicate strokes of colour that dance across the canvas. A sweep of earthy brown underscores the landscape, and displays Cheong's confidence in rendering the arresting scene. The continued influence of Cheong's Chinese ink aesthetic is most evident here in the central expanse of black where he employs a diffuse technique of painting reminiscent of traditional Chinese ink wash. Seamlessly integrating Eastern and Western notions of expression and abstraction, Cheong presents us with his own distinctive style of abstraction that has become as iconic as his depictions of elegant and long-limbed female figures (fig.3). The expressionism of Cheong's abstracts from the early 60s suggests a cathartic rejuvenation of the artist's canvas, and Nature is a superlative example from this defining period of his artistic career.