Chua Ek Kay
Special Presentation Of Works By Master Ink Painter At Chan Hampe Galleries
9 July - 8 August 2015
"[I am] constantly trying to distinguish what I am doing now with what came before in Chinese painting-so that it can create new space and new meaning. There are many who see our cultural heritage as authoritative and believe in a kind of 'purity' in preserving certain schools of practices I would like to produce some new works-some innovations-but, not so much that I am severing all ties with tradition, that it makes no sense to identify with my work with the Chinese ink tradition. I am always trying to work out these tensions."
- Chua Ek Kay, in 2002
Chua Ek Kay was born in Shantou, China, in 1947 and migrated to Singapore at age six. During the 1970s, he articulated a signature style of spontaneous modernist brushwork, derived from the traditional Shanghai school xieyi ink painting of his teacher Fan Chang Tien. Chua became broadly prolific in his acclaimed street scenes of Singapore, as well as his landscape and lotus pond series, but also contributed significantly to the development of minimalistic abstraction through a Chinese ink medium, inspired by the brevity and spiritual insight of traditional painting. Chua is best known for rendering the impression and essence of his subjects with quick, truncated calligraphic strokes - essentially becoming to Chinese ink painting, what Monet was to European Impressionism, by capturing the spirit and vitality of abundant nature and infusing it with a meditative, minimalistic quality; grasped through a viewer's intuition rather than by full physical definition.
Sixth-century Chinese art historian and theorist Xie He declared the foundation of ink painting lay within the "Six Principles" (liufa) - of which the key principle was "spiritual resonance and lifelike vitality" (qiyun shengdong). Therein lies the essence of the artwork: the merging between creator and creation, the transference of the painter's own life energy to the movement of the brush and ink. A good painter could demonstrate refined control and virtuosic finesse in depicting structure and movement; an excellent painter however imbued each gesture with the pace of his breathing and the rhythm of his heartbeat. Throughout his career, Chua’s brushwork exemplified qiyun shengdong, transferring his own rigor and vitality on to the paper surface through the yielding extension of ink and brush.
Chua’s minimalist abstracts of which there are relatively fewer examples (such as the five-panel Song of Cicada, produced in 1995 for his Master’s degree, and now in the collection of the Singapore Art Museum) provide a deeper insight to the artist’s spiritual inclinations and world view, particularly when considered against the proliferation of his more ubiquitous themes. Critics have often commented on the artistic merit of these sparsely rendered works, and Constance Sheares remarks: “This tendency towards a more conceptual and minimalistic approach developed not only as a consequence of his contact with contemporary artistic ideas, but also quite naturally from his own Buddhist beliefs in spiriutal purity and harmony, and the denial of the self in order to be one with the universe”.
This exhibition presents the Archipelago Series of Chua Ek Kay, which dwells on floating island forms and land terrains against a backdrop of pure unweighted space. These archipelago compositions can be considered the inverse of Chua’s streetscapes, while simultaneously retaining a keen awareness and exposition of the Nanyang art tradition. Instead of detailing the constructs of nation-building within a migrant state, the archipelago paintings hark back to the pristine, unsullied beauty of natural islands visualized from a bird’s eye perspective, a nostalgic reminder of Singapore – and Southeast Asia’s – terrestrial identity as an aggolomerate of tropical islands, and our blood ties to sea-faring migrant ancestors. At the same time, these works invoke traditional Chinese landscapes - Chua’s tribute to the historical shanshui tradition descending from the Northern and Southern Song Dynasties, wherein the interconnecting skeins of philosophy, spirituality, morality, paradise and politics are woven into an artist’s mastery of a landscape scene. The remote stillness of Chua’s island forms are counterpointed by the artist’s sweeping brushwork, imbuing them with the poeticism of eloquent natural beauty, rendered in monochrome and earth tones to suggest rock formations and wild vegetation.
A triptych work, Abide the Sea, beautifully embodies the essence of the Archipelago Series. The linear, smooth updraft of Chua’s freestyle technique relates to the exhalation of the painter’s body upon the physicality of wielding a large brush. Most prevalent in this composition is the juxtaposition of the expansive presence of white space against the spontaneous formation of ink plateaus. Space, in traditional painting is as important as the presence of objective form. It embodies balance and harmony; it can suggest the presence of unexpressed background, sky, water, or simply nothingness. Chua displays great restraint in his execution, yet does not compromise expression and virtuosity to any extent; by contrast the broad controlled strokes which lay down an endless horizon of island and ocean mirrors perfectly the landscape of the artist’s mind.
Chua’s proficient handling of pigment and alternation of wet and dry ink is particularly evident within Maple Cliff, featuring the dense latticework of Chua’s xieyi lines against ochre washes in order to create the atmosphere of maritime vegetation clinging tightly to a cliff surface. By contrast, Moonshine on Island is a dynamic, roiling composition that evokes the bulkhead of an island terrain when seen through the curtain of night; effacing specific physical characteristics and only leaving behind an elusive landmass formation when illuminated by rays of moonlight. Again, drawing from traditional shanshui, the vanishing point is eliminated, and a viewer comprehends the vertically arranged scene from a perspective of universal totality – through this merging of Eastern and modernist aesthetics, Chua refreshes our understanding of the possibilities of ink painting.
by Shuyin Yang, formerly Associate Specialist in Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Southeast Asia Region, at Christie's
- Chua Ek Kay