Exhibition review by Theresa Harwood
C-Arts: June - July 2011

The mention of Chinese landscape painting conjures up images of stylized mountains and loosely applied brushstrokes adhering to the formal philosophical principles of balance and harmony. A contained expressionism, employing ink and carefully considered mark making to create an impression of a landscape; sky, water, plains, or those infinite monuments to eternity, the lush mountains of Southern China. These paintings are a tranquil homage to nature, which often reflect the interiors they inhabit more than the world that they revere.

In comparison Chong Siew Ying’s landscapes have been literally wrenched from the mountain. Their sheer scale pulls the viewer into the painting. The visible traces of brushstrokes move frenetically across the canvas, smudging through horizons into inky black tempestuous storm clouds. There is a visceral sense that the hand that formed these worlds, sullied with the dark stain of the charcoal, also felt the cold shafts of stone, wind and water that inspired them.

From a respectable distance the poetically titled, Flow, conveys a monochromatic serenity that disguises the evident energy dispensed in its creation. There are blankets of white cumulus clouds and mountain peaks that provide a contemplative backdrop for the rugged mountain terrain and contorted mountain pines. It appears to be a contemporary version of a Song Dynasty landscape painting. Upon closer inspection the refined structure of the pine is drawn from an embattled layering of charcoal and acrylic medium. The charcoal is dispersed by almost violent brushstrokes that appear to both form, and erode, with the same mark. The charcoal congeals and gathers around the transparent binder in some areas, and dissipates into clouds in others. The landscape evolves through the sensuous qualities of the medium.

Chong Siew Ying’s collection of landscape paintings is not simply trying to replicate reality, nor imitate the past, but it is seeking a truth that exists in essence, rather than concrete form. An ideal reflected in her choice of medium and process, charcoal and acrylic medium. Charcoal known for its immediacy and the ease of which it can be effaced, and acrylic medium, a lacquer like, difficult to control, transparent resin, that binds, seals, or renders translucent. There is a physicality to this process that is tangible to the viewer and a rawness to the materials that transcends the confinements of imagery.

The seven large scale paintings included in this exhibition, all retain a meditative quality; a clearly defined visual narrative is provided by the elements of realism within the landscapes, the clouds, trees and shorelines. However, these visual signifiers are placed within uncultivated terrains, undeterminable horizons and volatile meteorological conditions that, on occasion, transform calm landscape into gestural terrain.

This expressive manner of working may reflect Chong Siew Ying’s time in France.

Like so many artists Chong Siew Ying travelled to Europe to further her creative education, she studied at the Ecole des Beauxs Arts in Versailles in Paris, before working as an apprentice and teacher at Atelier 66.

It was 19th century European painters, such as Turner, who first rudely disrupted the contemplative nature of the occidental style landscape. Turner was not interested in depicting beauty, he wanted to capture the human relationship with the landscape, not simply trying to depict something beautiful, but to capture the very magnitude of nature itself, or in the words of Kant, Turner was trying to recreate the “Sublime” (2).

Regardless of whether or not he achieved this feat, the representation of the landscape had changed. War, modernity, and post modernism saw the tradition of the landscape further broken into a plethora of abstractions, fields of colour, studies of form and materiality, or emotive expression.

Next to Flow, Chong Siew Ying’s homage to her Chinese heritage, Pulse is her romanticized European heart; brutal, savage and unrefined. Spread over three panels, each 201cms x 137 cms unfolds a dark, imposing, moor. While light breaks through the clouds and cuts a path across the dark landscape, the black ominous shadows on the horizon and shadow drenched clouds in the foreground hint at the volatile nature of the terrain. The imposing scale of the work enables the viewer to traverse this virtual world and experience the elements first hand. The plains of medium that streak down, in raw, uneven strips, leave an almost tangible invitation to run into the storm. It is melodramatic romanticism, a lie to reveal a truthful sentiment.

Chong Siew Ying’s landscapes are an imaginary legacy, an amalgamation of European and Asian ideals that reflect an internal search for identity. The titles the artist bestows upon these creations, Journey, Roots, Departure, Whisper, West Wind, East Wind, and Migrant, are clear autobiographical references to her life experience. Having been born in post-independence Malaysia to Chinese Malaysian parents Chong Siew Ying has always been submersed in a multitude of languages and cultures; Hakka at home, Mandarin at school, and Malaysian and English with friends and acquaintances, and French in Europe.

Diaspora and identity are recurrent themes within Chong Siew Ying’s work. She is renowned for her large-scale portraits of beautiful Chinese women framed with the colours and classic floral and fauna motifs of Peranakan ceramics and textiles. The manner in which these women were painted in monochrome against colourful backdrops hints at a sense of romanticized nostalgia, a longing for a China that didn’t really exist. In a similar manner Melissa Chiu found that Chinese artists like Chen Zhen and Cai Guo Qiang referenced a feudal Chinese culture they had not actually experienced; they were referencing “mediated reconstructions”. She describes this concept of mediated reconstructions in the publication Theories of Being Outside, Diaspora and Chinese Artists

Chong Siew Ying’s work does reflect a continued investigation into her identity. Our memories are often intrinsically linked to a place, buildings, but also our environment, our landscape, our homes. Siew Ying’s latest work is reflective of the global generation of migrants. As emigrants and first, second and third generation descendants of immigrants seek an understanding of their place and identity in the modern world, there remains a sense of belonging to a distant, ancestral, but unfamiliar world.

Infinity is Chong Siew Ying’s third solo exhibition in Singapore. It is not a major retrospective exhibiting the “seminal” and “pivotal” works taken from a lifetime of painterly investigation, but the latest work of a young master.

As with any young artist there are comparisons to be made between this work and what has gone before, or between this work and artists who work in a similar style, with a similar subject matter.

Within this exhibition there are paintings, which are unquestionably commercial, that include over-stated symbols of isolation, such as a jetty disappearing into the distance, or a lone duck in Migration, which, to the discerning eye, are overbearingly clichéd.

Like all true artists, Chong Siew Ying is seeking her own narrative; she experiments with her medium and process, and has the courage to risk breaking from a style and genre that has gained commercial and professional success to develop something new.

Flow and Pulse are paintings that make this exhibition worth seeing. Their complexity engages the viewer and confronts them with their dark, earthy, layers of charcoal infused medium, their instinctive fluidity, and their engulfing emotion. They are paintings, which allude to the familiar whilst installing a sense of awe. They are sublime.

Theresa Harwood is a Lecturer in Art and Design who is based in Singapore