With its pastel pink, deep red, and beige hues, Girl in Hammock transforms a traditional figurative subject through the distinctive modern style of Tay Chee Toh. Born in Johor, Malaysia, Tay Chee Toh's move to Singapore in 1958 to pursue formal arts education at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts placed the artist in the midst of a bourgeoning local arts scene, led by the pioneering artists who had arrived in Singapore in the late 40s and early 50s. Taught most notably by artists Cheong Soo Pieng and Georgette Chen, Tay began the development of his own distinctive style of artistic expression which ranged from the depiction of rural village life in Southeast Asia, to modernist experiments in abstraction, as well as sculpting.
The dayak motif in the centre of the painting takes on a highly stylized form under Tay’s brush, and the swirling lines and interlocking circles that are depicted here would later be transformed into paintings of geometric abstraction and mobile structures akin to Alexander Calder. The girl lies serenely in her hammock, the elegant posture of her arms and hands serving to further emphasize Tay’s love for clean lines and a simplicity of form. A hoop hangs exaggeratedly from her right ear, a direct reference to the enlarged ear piercing of the Dayaks of Borneo. Much more so than his teacher Cheong Soo Pieng, Tay’s renderings of indigenous figures retained key physical features of their cultural heritage, while the development of Cheong’s female figure-type of the late 1970s and early 1980s saw to homogenize and uplift an ideal type.
Most unique in this painting is the application of paint and pattern to the woman’s skirt. Fine vertical marks across the paint reveal an intricate pattern beneath, and this work is an early anticipation of Tay’s later experimentation into materials and textures. Just as the woman balances with poised ease in the hammock, the painting itself is also a work in balance and harmony as smooth lines delineate clear blocks of colour. Later, along with his contemporaries such as Anthony Poon, Tay would expand his craft into even more modernist forms of artistic expression.