heading choongkamkow creative journey

 
Introduction

CHOONG Kam Kow’s long involvement in Malaysian art has consolidated his position as one of the most important artists in the country. Formally educated at the National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei, Tawan (1961) and the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, New York, USA (1968), he has held 18 solo exhibitions to date in Malaysia and abroad. In addition to being actively involved as an artist, he is also a significant art educator, the former President of the Malaysian Institute of Art (1994 - 1999) and a former lecturer in Fine Arts at the MARA Institute of Technology (now Universiti Teknologi MARA, UiTM) for 20 years (1969 - 1989). He also held the post of dean of the School of Fine Art, La Salle-Sia College of the Arts, Singapore (1989 - 1994).

Throughout his involvement in the world of art, Choong has produced 15 major series of works. This Retrospective Exhibition at the National Visual Arts Gallery will give the public a chance to witness the artist’s long creative journey, in addition to appreciating the findings and innovations in his creative process.

The Formative Era (1950’s)

The 1950’s can be regarded as the formative era for Choong. Like many local artists at that time, watercolour was the main medium of expression for him. This can be seen in the “Kinta Series” which comprises a large number of his early watercolour works. For Choong, the 1950’s was a stage of exploration, experimentation and searching in art.

Attracted by the post-impressionist style and the expressionist approach, Choong captured the beauty of Nature from a various of angles. In addition to watercolour, he also produced oil paintings, inspired by the important artists of the time such as Cheong Soo Pieng, Abdullah Ariff and Yong Mun Sen, mainly picturing the beauty of country scenes, mountains and tin mines in Perak, where he spent his childhood.

A survey of his early landscapes clearly shows elements of Chinese and Western watercolour painting. The Chinese landscape approach can be seen, particularly in the album painting and monumental painting treatment, for instance in Village by the Water 1 (1963) and Sun Set at Pangkor Island (1963) which were painted in the album painting format, and in Beautiful River Side 1 (1963) which is a vertical monumental painting. In addition, the brushstrokes and the watery colours show the wash technique that is often seen in Yong Mun Sen’s works.

Sun Set at Pangkor Island looks more controlled, the fishing boats in the foreground inviting the viewer’s eye towards the background which is dominated by images of mountains and clouds. Rows of fishermen’s houses fill the middle ground by the edge of the water with human figures doing all kinds of activities such as anchoring a boat and unloading goods. The painting successfully captures the atmosphere of a fishing village.

In Beautiful River Side 1 (1963) which is a monumental painting, the viewer’s eye is brought from the bottom of the work which is embellished with images of boats, figures and fishermen’s houses, towards the middle where the curve of a beach forms a small bay bordered by coconut trees where human figures are talking. The placement of fishermen’s house on the left and right of the work seem to act as a guide to bring the viewer’s eye to the top of the painting.

The top of the painting features increasingly smaller coconut trees and human figures on a beach surrounded by water. The image repetition draws the public to move through the entire painting, in the same manner as Chinese monumental landscape paintings use the figure images to move through the entire scene pictured. Just like in Chinese painting, human beings form a small part of Nature.

A similar approach is used by Choong in the work Beautiful River Side 10 (1965) which combines ink and watercolour on rice-paper. In this work, the images of trees resembling clouds are arranged from the bottom of the work to the top, with images of boats and small human figures all along the edge of the plane. Again, the viewer is led to move through the entire work.

In addition to being related to the great tradition of Chinese landscape painting, Choong’s early works clearly enable us to relate them with the works of the major Nanyang artist Cheong Soo Pieng who also created works in the same genre. The link in terms of the use of colour and external lines may be more obvious in Choong Kam Kow’s work entitled Village by the Water 1 (1963). In addition to capturing a peaceful village scene, this work also shows experimentation in the use of ink and watercolour which are combined through a wet approach and a strict treatment of lines. For the generation that grew up at the same time as the artist, this type of work must evoke many memories about the illustrations on greeting cards that could be seen in the 1960’s.

The homogenous and cool treatment of colour, the soft brushstrokes and the wash technique can be clearly seen in the series two to seven of Beautiful River Side (1964) which were produced in the album painting format. The artist’s clever use of watercolour shows the characteristics of the medium and how it should be used. These early watercolour works painted by Choong Kam Kow during his formative years are truly refreshing.

Other fresh watercolour works can be seen in the Formosa Series painted earlier, from 1957 to 1961, when Choong Kam Kow was studying Fine Art at the National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei, Taiwan. These expressionist watercolours capture the streets and landscapes around Taipei, among which Taipei Street Scene 1 (1959), Taipei Street Scene 2 (1960), Taipei Street Scene 3 (1960), Taipei Street Scene 4 (1962), Chungshan Bridge Taipei (1959), Taichung City Park in Summer (1959), Taipei Suburb (1960) and A Back Lane Scene in Taipei (1962).

Works that capture street scenes, human activities and the architecture around Taipei are not only documentations of time, place and history, but are also nostalgic works which evoke a lot of memories for the artist. In particular, Taichung City Park in Summer (1959), with its unique architecture built during the war with Japan, was a place the artist often visited and which still exists today. Taipei Suburb (1960) and A Back Lane Scene in Taipei (1962) which depict new and more modern settlements look like scenes that are often seen in Impressionist paintings in the West.

In addition to landscapes, street scenes and architecture, Choong also painted still-lifes and natural landscapes, such as Still-Life (1961), Scenery at Highland in Taiwan (1961), Water lily Pond 1 (1961) and Water lily Pond 2 (1962). The combination of lively light colours and firm controlled lines produced works of captivating beauty.

Meanwhile, oil paintings from the formative era capture elements of Expressionism and Cubism which are clearly seen in the thick application of colours in Fishing Village 1 (1963) and Fishing Village 2 (1962). A similar approach can also be seen in other artists of the same era such as Dato’ Tay Hooi Keat who painted local subjects such as scenes of nature and fishing villages. In this context, we can conclude that Choong’s works from his formative era were intimely related to the approach adopted by pioneering artists in this country.

The New York Series (1965 until 1968)

Works from the New Yorks Series were produced from 1965 to 1968, while the artist was furthering his studies at the Pratt Institute in New York. Life and the new environment in the big city made a big impact on Choong and his technique.

This series seems like a reflection of the artist’s reaction in front of the rapid, busy and crowded city life. In this context, his works combine organic and geometric abstract images, as if to echo the shock between the artist’s gentle soul and the harsh and challenging outside environment in the big city.

This can be seen in works such as Sea Beach I (1967) and Sea Beach II (1967). The combination of shapes of structured colours like impasto with square shapes creates a stark contrast. From another perspective, these works were also inspired by the abstract artists of the New York School who were famous for this type of approach.

While in New York (1965 - 1969), Choong received a lot of inspiration from the major art movement of that time, Abstract Expressionism. Consequently, he produced a series of abstract paintings in the ink medium through the combination of the conventional treatment of Chinese ink- painting which he had learned in Taiwan with exploratory and experimental techniques. The result was a dynamic visual product which can be seen in the Ink Dance Series, namely in Ink Dance Series 1 (1967), Ink Dance Series 3 (1967) and Ink Dance Series 6 (1967), as well as in It Speaks when Silent (1965).

At the same time, Choong also produced a series of works on the theme of the human figure which was called the Innovative Figure Studies Series. Under this title, he produced many composition studies in the form of sketches and drawings which related the human shape with its background. These expressive and linear works generally use conte charcoal as their main medium.

Besides naturalist works, a major part of his output had expressionist elements and expressive lines. The innovative approach focused on the aspects of visual balance, movement and the play between positive and negative space. In this context, the human form was simplified and broken down into light but compact compositions: The human figure became a part of the environment. Choong remembered the night classes that he attended in New York to produce these figurative works with his classmates who gathered informally to draw in a relaxed environment.

The Shaped Canvas Series (1969 until 1972)

From around 1969 to 1972, Choong created a new series of paintings, namely hard-edge paintings. This approach mirrors the artist’s reaction towards the country’s emphasis on science and technology in the development of the nation. Labelling Choong’s new approach as an effort to present scientific and intellectual elements in art, solving issues of structure and perceptive values of art, art critics Redza Piyadasa and T.K. Sabapathy (1983) considered Choong and several other artists, such as Tang Tuck Kan, as the New Scene Painters 1 . They were considered to be answering the negative assumption that local artists were only interested in creating works that were beautiful but without a strong meaning and theory.

Among the significant works in this series were Projection (1970), Vibration (1970), Integrated (1971) and Volumes in Flight (1971). In addition to displaying a neat and detailed treatment, these hard-edge paintings also created interesting, active and rhythmic visual effects. A variety of shapes, sizes, canvas heights and colour arrangements produced beautiful and dynamic visual effects.

Choong describes the configuration of hard-edge paintings as reflecting industrial beauty which is based on precision. In this approach, gestural traces are purposely removed while the meaning of colour as shape and shape as colour is emphasized in detail. The industrial aspect is further enhanced through the use of emulsion colours on canvas.

In Volumes in Flight (1971), Choong steps even further by trying new experimentations in the treatment of the shape of hard-edge paintings by cutting his canvases and creating geometric works resembling kites. The colour arrangement seems to be floating and dancing, matching its title. The visual and physical spaces are combined, resulting in a work that functions as a transition phase before the appearance of the SEA-THRU Series.

His systematic and neat painting approach, applied on a canvas of various shapes was basically in contradiction with the abstract expressionist and expressionist works that dominated Malaysian art at the time. In this context, logic and scientific issues differentiated Choong’s works from the expressionist works which are based on emotions and expression. Choong’s works can also be seen as an effort to elevate art to an activity of an intellectual nature, and not merely an expression of feelings.

The entire process of hard-edged paintings can also be regarded as a detailed, disciplined and careful process. It is not only important to create a visual result which is tidy and accurate, the application and choice of colour also play an important role in order to create an interesting visual effect. The canvases in a variety of shapes and forms also contribute to create a dynamic composition.

Thus, it is not surprising if this type of painting approach became part of the academic training in studying form and colour for students of fine arts, especially in the Institut Teknologi MARA (ITM) in the early 1980’s. Choong who started teaching there in 1969 must surely have contributed his technical skills not only from the perspective of colour, but also for other art elements and principles.

When he was teaching in the Fine Arts Department in ITM, he taught courses on painting with a focus on the themes of still-life and landscape. Choong was undoubtedly a serious and committed lecturer until his retirement, when he continued his involvement as a lecturer and administrator in another institution. His constant efforts to create new approaches in art such as the treatment of hard-edge paintings reveal his creativity and innovation.

The SEA-THRU Series (Early 1970’s)

Choong’s constant strife for change and innovation in art can be seen in the early 1970’s, particularly in the series entitled the SEA-THRU Series. The idea for the title comes from the name of the neighbourhood he had just moved to, namely SEA Park, Petaling Jaya which can be seen as a new semantic angle. In this series, elements of optical and physical illusions clash and react together.

Among the major works in this series are SEA Thru-Expand (1970), SEA Thru-Open (1972) and SEA THRU-Flow 3 (1974). In this series, the artist explores new dimensions by combining the disciplines of painting and sculpture which later became the basis for art installations in the country. In this series, he used mixed media in the form of wood and canvas to form his works.

SEA THRU-Flow 3 (1974) is a work made of teak and mixed media which can be displayed either horizontally on the floor or hung on a wall. The interesting wooden shapes with spaces in the middle look like waves. The contrast between the positive and negative spaces creates interesting visual effects.

Discussing this work, Redza Piyadasa wrote: “This work is actually an ‛object’ rather than a sculpture in that it is self-referential and does not depict anything outside of itself. Neatly cut holes have been made on the forms to emphasise the intrusion of real physical space and this has heightened its identity as a ‛thing’. It is, in essence, a minimalist form existing in the same space as the viewer. The highly polished surfaces suggest an industrially ‛finished’ look and character” (2002: 184).

Piyadasa’s statement and a detailed observation of this work show the artist’s tendency towards the intellectual aspects of art, as explored previously in his hard-edge paintings. As in Projection (1970), Vibration (1970), Integrated (1971) and Volumes in Flight (1971), Choong strives to explore new approaches in art and seeks innovation in the context of contemporary art. Indirectly, the works produced in the 1970’s show the artist’s strength as a formalist.

Although studies place Choong as a formalist, the SEA-THRU Series features cultural elements of classical Chinese tradition, especially the five elements of Nature namely Wood, Fire, Metal, Water and Earth, all of which symbolize the changes in seasons.

In addition, this series is also interactive in nature, its shape with empty spaces and the effects of reflecting images inviting the audience to see it from closer and read the text displayed carefully. This interactive element, together with its fresh form and colour also manifest clear characteristics of Pop Art. This makes these works innovative for their time.

The Festival Series: The Manifestation of Muhibbah (1980’s to 1990’s)

From the end of the 1970s to the 1990s, Choong Kam Kow explored new avenues in art. If beforehand he had been leaning towards a formalist approach, exploring issues exclusively related to creativity and art, he now focused on the issue of ethnic relations in the country through the use of cultural objects, particularly related to food and traditional food wrappers during a cultural festival in the country. In this context, he translated the aspect of cultural assimilation and the sharing of traditional values in the life of multi-ethnic and multi-cultural Malaysian society.

In the artist’s words, “to be meaningful and of high regard, a work of art must consist of cross-nation status and visual language. It must also convey the essence of regional/ local cultural and traditional value” (Choong Kam Kow’s Statement of Art, 2014).

Works in this series, such as Festival III (1981), Festive Mood 85-4 (1985), Festive Mood 88-1 (1988), Festive Mood 87 (1987), Festive Mood 87-1 (1987), Festive Mood 87-2 (1987), Image & Identity 3 (1996), Image & Identity-4 (1996), Traditional Form (1999), Form & Structure II (1997) and Image & Identity 5 (1998) are formed through mixed media, hand-made paper,and moulded paper, and acrylics. The artist chooses and elevates the wrappings of traditional food which are significant as objects and cultural symbols such as ketupat (rice packets), pulut panggang (grilled glutinous rice) and kuih angku (red tortoise cake). He explains: “...through the configuration of forms and structures of festival related cakes, offerings and artefacts to convey the spirit of sharing traditional values - the Malaysian way of life”. (Choong Kam Kow, 2004: 17).

The choice of images of food packaging and traditional food is related to the various cultural connotations. In Festival III (1981), the kueh angku (red tortoise cake) which is shaped like a tortoise symbolizes longevity, after the characteristics of the tortoise which has a very long life expectancy. Whereas the shape of ketupat in several other works such as Image & Identity-4 (1996) and Form & Structure (1998) represent the unity of a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society.

Cultural assimilation is reflected in the food culture and the festivals which are celebrated together, as a mark of mutual respect within our plural society. From another perspective, Choong’s approach can be translated as an effort to search for a national identity as laid out in the formation of the National Cultural Policy in 1971. In fact, in the 1970’s, the propensity of local artists to refer to their cultural roots as a source of inspiration was further enhanced through various efforts, including the Seminar on the Roots of Indigenous Art which was held in 1979 in the School of Art and Design, MARA Institute of Technology, where Choong worked as a lecturer.

Choong’s interest in three-dimensional shapes or relief which could be seen in previous works is also present in this series, particularly in the shapes of traditional pastries. The artist’s body of work also translates the character and form of traditional art which is generally supported by patterns, systematic arrangements, repetition of motifs and a decorative function. In this context, the traditional aspect is appreciated, studied, and reworked into a form which suits a contemporary art expression.

Back to Nature (Since the 1980’s)

In 1985, Choong joined a group of artists on an expedition to the rainforest in Endau Rompin, as an effort to understand the natural heritage. This expedition left a deep impact on him and his creative process and enabled him to created several major series of works based on the natural environment such as the Rhythm of Growth Series, the Rockscape Series and the Earthscape Series.

In the heart of the jungle, he gained a better understanding of the growth and development of nature. Based on this insight, he was inspired by the motif of the lingzhi mushroom on dead tree stumps to interpret the process of the cycle of life and death of Nature.

Based on this metaphor, Choong painted a number of very detailed works capturing the beauty of Nature, such as Rhythm of Growth I (1987), Rhythm of Growth V (1988), Rhythm of Growth VII (1988), Rhythm of Growth IX (1990) and Rhythm of Growth 92 (1992). The treatment of natural colours, the visual texture and the fine and precise line effects echo the precision of his traditional food series. This reflects the artist’s careful observation and understanding of the basic principles of traditional art, which he assimilates and translates to his observation of Nature.

After this series, Choong produced the Rockscape Series and the Earthscape Series. These series which were inspired by the trip to Endau Rompin and the Bako National Park show the artist’s admiration for the beauty and mystery of Nature. Through works such as Rhythmic Follow 91-1 (1991), Rhythmic Follow 91-2 (1991) and Rhythmic Follow 91-3 (1991), he records the visual effects of hard rock formations which have undergone the process of erosion.

Like a natural curtain with many layers, the surface of the eroded stone seems to undulate gently. The rhythm of nature pictures the artist’s full commitment to capturing the forms of nature which he studies minutely. The creative process here is a sort of transformation of the harsh reality of nature into a soft, luminous and melodious form.

According to Choong, “Viewed from a distance, look at it closeup. The changing rhythm and mystery of Nature: Probe into the eternal and ephemeral quality of Nature to comprehend the contrasting yet complementing the Dao of Ying and Yang. The solid rock has to live with the gradual erosion process. The long lasting mountain cannot escape the seasonal changes of vegetation” (Ibid: 38).

The artist’s admiration for the beauty and mystery of nature is carried forward into the Earthscape Series which was painted in the early 1990’s, with works such as Beautiful Earth 92-1 (1992), The Song of Nature (1992) and Colour Orchestra 1 (1992). In his own words, “All things spring forth from the bowels of the Earth, live on the Earth and return to the Earth” (Ibid: 50). Based on memory, the landscapes of the earth’s strata show a new phase in the works around the theme of Nature. Produced in Singapore, the Earthscape Series constitutes a continuation of the Rockscape Series with strong and evident nostalgic values.

The new millenium: Return to cultural roots

The Dragon Tradition Series

The advent of the new millennium gave rise to various reactions and perceptions in society at large. The rise of globalization is sometimes seen as a threat to identity and traditional culture which are constantly eroded by the global culture. The new millennium required individuals to see within themselves and re-evaluate their relationship with society, traditions and traditional culture, as well as their environment in general.

For Choong the beginning of the new millennium which coincided with the Year of the Dragon seemed to given him the inspiration to create works based on his own traditional culture. The dragon symbol transcends global culture with various interpretations related to culture, spirit, power and dynamism.

In the works of the Dragon Tradition Series, Choong gave a new interpretation to the dragon through the application of vibrant, energetic and dynamic colours to represent the dynamism and strength needed to face the challenges of the new millennium. The symbolism of the dragon which has undergone a long historical tradition is reinvented through a fresh visual treatment as can be seen in Layers of Dragon Tradition I (2001), The Legend of Dragon I (2003), The Legend of Dragon II (2003), The Legend of Dragon (2003), Layers of Dragon Tradition 2 (2002) and Kun (2011).

These works were produced by the combination of the various techniques of painting and silkscreen printing to obtain the best and most innovative visual effects. In most works, silkscreen printing in the form of classical Chinese calligraphy forms the background. These classical letters overlap one another into several layers to create a visual effect which is dynamic and seems to float on the surface of the canvas. This background calligraphy brings various messages related to the traditional meanings of the dragon symbol.

The association of dragon legends with various traditions of a multi-cultural society is expressed in such paintings as The Legend of Dragon II (2003). In this work, Choong draws his inspiration from a visit to Kelantan where he observed the decorations on fishermen’s boats. In this work, heads of bangau and dragons are combined on a background of small anchovies that form a fine pattern, together with images of dried fish which function as a representation of life on the East Coast.

Generally, the Dragon Tradition Series captures Choong’s earnest and tireless efforts to achieve the best art results, replete with aesthetic values. He refers to his environment and the wealth of tradition of a multi-cultural society in this country as his inspiration, therefore proving his creative principle that good art must convey local cultural and traditional values.

The Gongfu (Kungfu) Series

Choong Kam Kow’s latest works in the Gongfu (Kungfu) Series are more personal, stemming from his practice of Tai-chi and Qi Gong as a form of therapy after undergoing surgery for colon cancer. In the artistic practice, the mind and body unite and strengthen each other, creating harmony and peace. This has given him strength and determination to handle his health crisis, the healing process and challenging days.

In this series, the artist captures the movements and positions of people practising this traditional artform to picture the energy of the human body. Postures reflect the energy that preserves the health of the mind and body. According to the artist, images of physical movements and postures in qi or the energy of Tai-Chi, Qi Gong and Shaolin Kungfu accompanied by inscriptions from Kungfu manuals, whether in static form or in calligraphy, serve to express a form of visual dynamics and significance in his works.

The paintings in this series, such as Shaolin Kungfu (2006), Practising Gongfu (2006), Fit for Life 3-Shaolin (2007), Fit for Life 4 (2007), Fit for Life 6 (2008), Fit for Life 7 (2008), Blue Sky Alert (Taiji Series 12) (2010) and Martial Arts Demo 1, 2, 3 (2011) serve the dual function of capturing the movements and rhythm of people in a refined artistic manner, as well as of mirroring an artistic process that the artist has been practising for a long time.

In most of the works of this series, the figure images, their positions and postures are presented on the background of a display of classical Chinese characters adapted from a kungfu manual. As in the Dragon Tradition Series, several characters are arranged in rows and overlapping one another with the use of the silkscreen technique. This creates a tidy and systematic visual effect, as a new approach in decorative traditional art. The figure poster is also inspired by a kungfu manual based on the positions, modeled after photographs or moves carried out by the artist himself. Choong shows his deep understanding of all these moves due to his personal practice.

In addition to paintings of human figures captured individually, other works also present human figures in compositions. This approach reflects the evolution and dynamism of the figures’ movements at different times on one canvas. This can be seen in Fit for Life 20 - Vitalizing the Qi (Taiji Series 17) (2003).

Besides capturing the artist’s love for nature and traditional arts, the new millennium witnessed Choong’s effort to include elements of social commentary revolving around the issues of pollution of the environment and patriotic spirit. Elements of social commentary can be seen in Blue Sky Alert - (Taiji Series 12) (2010) which depicts the issue of environmental pollution which threatens human life, through the use of images of factories with billowing smoke in the background, in addition to elements of patriotism with the use of the Jalur Gemilang in Fit for Life 7 (2008).

Although originally quite personal in nature, the Gongfu (Kungfu) Series reflects the continuation of Choong’s visual treatment which is consistent, and based on tradition and culture. In addition, the artist’s latest works also reflect his attention to details, his strong commitment and his controlled technique, compared to other artists who become more expressive with age and near the end of their artistic involvement.

Conclusion

Choong Kam Kow is a dynamic artist who always strives to innovate in order to create works that are pioneering in terms of style, form and meaning. His long creative journey has witnessed several turning points, from a formalist tendency to his return to Nature and his own cultural roots.

Throughout his career, Choong Kam Kow has endeavoured to be innovative, without rejecting the cultural values of the society around him. In the development of modern Malaysian art, Choong Kam Kow’s contribution is valued not only for his search for new styles and approaches based on intellectual values, but also in the field of visual art education. This Retrospective Exhibition is an appreciation of his commitment, which we should all celebrate together.




Prof. Dr Muliyadi Mahamood
Lecturer in Art History & Criticism and a Professor of Cartoon Studies in the Faculty of Art & Design (FSSR), Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM), Shah Alam. He obtained his Doctorate degree in the field of Cartoon studies (Ph.D in Cartoon Studies) from the University of Kent, Canterbury, England (1997), his Master’s degree (MA in History of Art) from Ohio University, Athens, USA (1988), his Degree (BFA History of Art) from University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, USA (1986) and his Diploma in Art and Design (Fine Art) from Institut Teknologi MARA (1984)

(Original printed in "CHOONG KAM KOW RETROSPECTIVE - Cross Culture • Trans Era",

 National Visual Arts Gallery, Malaysia 2014)
 
 

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drchoong kam kow
Dr. Choong Kam Kow is a well known
senior contemporary artist,
a leading art & design educationist and
an independent curator in Malaysia

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