Old Campus Revisited: A Chua Ek Kay Collection of the Catholic High School

11th January to 11th March

Introduction

The Private Museum presents an exhibition which showcases the Catholic High School’s special collection of paintings by the late local artist, Chua Ek Kay, who is an old boy of the school. He is known for his combination of both Eastern and Western art techniques and theories in his works. A special selection from the Catholic High School will be featured in this exhibition with subject matters ranging from traditional Chinese paintings of birds and flowers, to old buildings and abstractions which reflects the evolution of Ek Kay’s artistic practice. The highlight of this exhibition will be the display of four Chinese ink paintings of the former Catholic High School campus at 222 Queens Street, now 51 Waterloo Street. Coincidentally, this is where The Private Museum is currently located. Ek Kay painted these works in 2005 with the sole purpose of donating them to the school and its new campus in Bishan. Ek Kay donated more works to the school subsequently, totaling to an impressive number of twenty-five Chinese ink paintings.

Artwork

Artist

Chua Ek Kay(1947 – 2008)

SOLO EXHIBITIONS
2010 Revisiting Chua Ek Kay: Tribute to the Ink Master, Singapore Tyler Print Institute, Singapore
2009 Remembering Chua Ek Kay: One Year On…Singapore Management University,Singapore
2007 Along the River Banks,Singapore Tyler Print Institute, Singapore
Chua Ek Kay’s Street Scenes: A Gift of History, Singapore Management University, Singapore
2006 Chua Ek Kay @ Art Forum 2006, Art Forum, Singapore
2005 Yixi: Recent Paintings of Chua EkKay, Shanghai Art Museum, Shanghai
2003 Being & Becoming, Singapore Tyler Print Institute, Singapore
2001 Street Scenes Revisited – Soobin Gallery, Singapore
2000 Lyrical Spaces, Wetterling Teo Gallery, Singapore
1998 Hunter of the Wilderness, Art Forum, Singapore
1997 Colours of Infinity, CHIJMES, Singapore
1995 Recent Works by Chua Ek Kay, University of Western Sydney, Australia
1992 Duality and Tension, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore
1990 Street Scene by Chua Ek Kay, Art Affair at Duxton Road, Singapore
1988 Chua Ek Kay’s Works in Chinese Ink, Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Singapore

 

GROUP EXHIBITIONS
2007 Contemporary-2: Chua Ek Kay & Lim TzePeng – The Two Medallion Winners, Cape of Good Hope Art Gallery, Singapore
2006 Modern Ink Painting from Singapore, 5th International Ink Biennial, Shenzhen, China
Drawing Room, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore
Artery: InauguralExhibition, Singapore Management University, Singapore
2005 Art Show organized by National Arts Council, Singapore Management University, Singapore
Art Festival Visual Art Exhibition, Singapore Management University, Singapore
2004 Asia Art Exhibition, Hanoi, Vietnam
2003 Contemporary Art and Calligraphy Exhibition, Chengdo and Shanghai
2002 Timeless Space Damask Asia, London
2001 Nokia Singapore Art 2001, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore
Ink &Colour, 2 Singaporean Artists, Kuala Lumpur
Asian Art Today 2001, Earl Lu Gallery, Singapore
1999 Ambulation, Earl Lu Gallery, Singapore
Beyond Tradition: Art of the New Migrant Chinese, Earl Lu Gallery, Singapore
Power and Poetry, Monuments and Meditations in Chinese Ink Painting, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore
CRISP, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore
1998 Philip Morris-ASEAN Art Exhibition Hanoi , Vietnam
1997 Nine Artists in Bali , Fort Canning Hill, Singapore
1996 A Century of Art in Singapore , Singapore Art Museum, Singapore
The 3rd ASEAN Art Exhibition, ASEAN Art Symposium & Workshop, Singapore delegate and Workshop Director, Singapore
1992 Singapore Art Festival, Tai-Ku Sheng, Hong Kong
1991 25 Years of Art from Singapore, Meridian House International Washington DC, IndianapolisDallas, Los Angeles and Honolulu, USA

 

Essay

Chua Ek Kay: A New and Separate Direction for Art

by Britta Erickson

Introduction

Chua Ek Kay 蔡逸溪 (1947-2008) is known for his abstract and semi-abstract ink paintings and his evocative vignettes of old Singapore. This unusual juxtaposition of themes reflects both the artist’s quest for a unique artistic voice, and his deep appreciation for the special qualities of the city to which he moved at the age of six, Singapore.

As one of the youngest members of the great mid-twentieth century Chinese diaspora, Chua Ek Kay joined the first major surge of artists to have been born in China, only to mature under the long-term influence of another culture. Decades of fighting—rebellions, World War II, and the ongoing civil war—ravaged China, leading to the widespread famine and devastation that catalyzed a massive wave of emigration. The final spur to this large-scale exodus came in 1949 with the establishment of the People’s Republic. Chua’s father joined the large numbers leaving south China for Nanyang; his wife and Ek Kay joined him in Singapore later, in 1953.

Depending upon their destination, the artists belonging to the mid-century diaspora fared differently. Those who found their way to the United States almost inevitably came under the influence of Western modernism. The large numbers who moved to Taiwan felt modernism’s touch only slightly later, due to the post-war American presence. Avant-garde Western art movements were slower to make their mark in Singapore. Post-war Singapore nurtured disparate artistic styles associated with the various national or ethnic communities: the British provided a strong legacy of conventional water color painting, and the Indian Fine Arts Society, Malay Art Society, and Society of Chinese Artists supported regional styles. In 1964, with the founding of the Modern Art Society, there was an across-the-board call for overthrowing conservative values in art and embracing modernism. At that time Chua was still busy with his pre-university education (now called junior college).

Shanghai School Legacy

Having left China as a young child, Chua Ek Kay received all his art education in Singapore. As a student at the Catholic High School from age thirteen through eighteen, he was particularly interested in music, and participated in the school’s Orchestra Club: later on it was his habit to listen to music while painting. After graduating from the Catholic High School in 1967 he worked for a group management company until the 1980s, while building his skill and reputation as an artist. He was able to study ink painting under Fang Chang Tien 范昌乾 (1908-1985) at the Chao’an Hall 潮安会馆 for a year or two starting in 1975, and he continued with the same master on a less regular basis for many years. Fang, like the Chua family, was from Guangdong province, but he had studied in Shanghai and so provided a direct link between Chua and the great Shanghai School ink painting masters, including Pan Tianshou 潘天寿 (1897-1971) and Wang Zhen 王震 (Yiting 一亭; 1867-1938) and, through the latter, back to the great artist Wu Changshi 吳昌碩 (1844-1927). (Here, the terminology can be confusing. “Shanghai School” 上海画派 indicates not an educational center, but rather a group of artists from the Shanghai region with a shared artistic sensibility or style.)

Chua’s earlier ink paintings demonstrate a firm grasp of Shanghai School brushwork and prominent themes. He rendered the solid but tender form of the persimmon in Pear and Persimmon (1987) with just two masterful horizontal strokes, and with minimal brushwork he captured a pair of birds’ lively manners, still for just a moment, in Two Birds (1999). The artist’s Shanghai lineage is particularly apparent in Evergreen (1997), an occasional painting displaying a rock, narcissus, prunus blossoms, yellow chrysanthemums, and a red flower—possibly a peony—symbolic of refined taste, endurance and good fortune. The artist’s inscription on the painting states that it was painted at the Catholic High School: perhaps his alma mater inspired the subject. While the combining of plants that do not bloom at the same time is unusual, the massing of the motifs into a single compact form was a trend led by Chua’s artistic forbears, notably Wu Changshi, who painted many similarly themed paintings that merged decorative appeal with high standards of calligraphic brushwork, often favoring red blossoms elegantly placed atop ink stems and leaves. The Narcissus (2001) Chua painted several years later, with leaves heavily outlined in black to contrast with the ethereal paper-thin petals, shows a strong influence of Pan Tianshou. This subject, as mentioned in the artist’s inscription, anticipates the coming of spring.

Formal Art Education

In the first half of the 1990s, Chua Ek Kay earned three university degrees, from LaSalle-SIA College of the Arts (1990), the University of Tasmania (1994) and the University of Western Sydney (1995). The purpose of his extended formal education was both to remove him from a situation that reinforced adherence to tradition in Chinese brush painting, and to enlarge his understanding of international trends in painting. He worked to fuse his facility with ink painting with Western modes of painting—ranging from realism to abstraction—to arrive at fresh and personal means of expression. An essential aspect of this was recognition that Chinese ink, paper, and brush are tools that need not be limited by tradition. Indeed, even his mastery of the brush was to be deployed as a tool rather than an end in itself. As he remarked in 2002:

“I would like to produce some new work—some innovations—but, not so much that I am severing all ties with tradition; [sic] Not so much that it makes no sense to identify my work with the Chinese ink tradition. I am always trying to work out this tension.”[i]

At the same time that he expanded his use of brush and ink, however, he continued to develop as a traditional ink painter: as the foundation of his career, this remained fundamentally important. Demonstrating his continued commitment to traditional ink painting, he inscribed a long quote from the important artist-scholar Huang Binhong 黄宾虹 (1865-1955) on Wisteria (2006), and produced The MistyMountain (2006) in a Huang Binhong-based style reminiscent of Lu Yanshao 陆俨少 (1909-1993).

Water Village Series

In 2001 Chua said that, due to the previous decade of study and travel, including “a better grasp of Western contemporary art and having penetrated deeper into the Chinese ink techniques, the ideology of my art has changed sharply.”[ii]

The Water Village Series (2002-2007) consists of small intimate views of particular landscapes he had visited in 2002, a subject not often found in the works of Chua’s traditional forbears. In this format he seems to have experimented with ways of pushing his ink and brush manner towards abstraction, a tendency that had been nascent in the works of early Shanghai School painters, and that had risen closer to the surface with Huang Binhong. Chua heightened the contrast between black roofs and white blossoms and walls in Roof and Plum Blossoms, of which he remarked: “Plum blossoms and old roof tiles, seen along the way in Anhui.” In Plum Blossoms and White Walls in Winter he seems more concerned with capturing the abstract beauty and flowing energy of the location than its actual appearance. Jiangnan Village Settlement portrays the purity of winter through sparse brushwork, offset by a poem by Buddhist monk Xuyun 虚云 (1840-1959). The monk’s abstract musings are as difficult to pin down as the details of the village: both hover in the space between emptiness and concrete reality.

Lotus Pond Series

“Buddhism has influenced my work in its philosophical content, and my understanding of the relationship between the form and the soul or what is called in Chinese ‘the spirit of the subject matter.’ Somehow, one has to draw a balance between these two opposites.”[iii]

Chua Ek Kay’s creative process was to proceed from the concrete—looking at and often later sketching a subject—towards the abstract, with the goal of representing the essence of the subject rather than its physical appearance. Two of Chua’s series, Lotus Pond Series and his later Street Scene Series, exemplify this aspect of his fully mature style. The Lotus Pond Series (2003-2006) was the vehicle for Chua’s greatest abstract work. While the lotus itself has long been a favored subject for ink painters—in part because according to Buddhist thought it signifies the possibility for the soul to grow into a pure and wonderful flower from the mud and muck of life—for Chua to choose a broad view of a lotus pond was fresh and new. Dotted with endless minor variants on a single form, the lotus, the pond lent itself to abstraction. Chua captured the rich surface of a lotus pond in Reflection with a Melody (2003), comparing the harmonious movement of the stems and leaves to a melody. With Morning Mist he pared the subject back to a sparse minimalist view. Summer Lotus (2005) calls artistic conventions into question by layering differing modes of presentation. A semi-abstract backdrop of irregular round shapes rendered using dry scrubby brushwork atop light colored wash represents lotus pads viewed from above. Against that background, readily recognizable lotus blossoms are depicted from a side view, their petals arrayed to demonstrate their three-dimensionality. Such juxtaposition of painting modes and points of view is evidence of the artist’s supreme confidence in his approach: he has risen above convention to forge his own language, drawing on East and West, but finding a new and separate space. In an intriguing exercise, he turned back to tenets of Shanghai School painting in New Lotus (2006), while maintaining his singular vision.

Street Scene Series: Catholic High School Old Campus Grounds

“The streets and lanes hold fond memories of my childhood as well as dreams of my present and future.”[iv]

“I . . . wanted the feeling to be the focus of my paintings not the rendering of the actual physical architecture.”[v]

Old Singapore streets, with their varied architecture and suggestion of a way of life gradually fading into the past, into tropical decay, or encroached upon by modern highrises, were a subject of abiding interest for Chua, first tackled in the 1980s. As a unique subject lacking association with any historical artistic style, it was eminently suited to an artist exploring his identity as a Singaporean artist and seeking a personal voice. He found the subject so engrossing that he wrote a poem, “Street Scenes Revisited,” in which he recounts moments from his travels to exotic places, and speaks with fondness of the familiar places of home, while also acknowledging that change is a part of the cycle of life.

Like his Lotus Pond paintings, Chua’s later Street Scenes fully reveal his unique artistic vision, including his personal brush manner and his goal of capturing the essence of the subject—exemplified by several paintings titled Catholic High School Old Campus Grounds. As a subject near to his heart, perhaps more familiar to him than any other location—given that he went there day after day, year after year, as a student—his memories of the Catholic High School were strong but also layered with years of evolving personal and emotional associations. When he painted them, in 2005, he had recovered from a period of illness: at such a juncture, childhood associations become even more poignant. His images of the old campus buildings are more particularized than many of his other street scene buildings, yet they are also among his most hazy images, described with dark ink on a dry brush scrubbed over the paper, with highly impressionistic results. The haziness simultaneously hints at the fading of memory, and also at the frequent sensation that a memory can be complete without detail: indeed, detail would only interfere.

There is great Order in the whole universe
Determining when everything forms or stays . . . .

Where I toil tirelessly stroke after stroke
Each of them a brush with the truth and innocence

(Chua Ek Kay, “Street Scenes Revisited,” translated by Teo Han Wue)

 

Dr Britta Erickson is an independent scholar and curator based in the United States. She is a Chinese ink specialist and had co-curated the 2007 Chengdu Biennial which focused on ink art.


[i] Lindy Poh, “Being and Becoming The Lotus Pond Series,” Chua Ek Kay: Being and Becoming—The Lotus Pond Series (Singapore: Tyler Print Institute, 2002), n.p.
[ii] W.Y. Choy, Chua Ek Kay—STREET SCENES REVISITED,” Chua Ek Kay Street Scenes Revisited (Singapore: Soobin Art Gallery, 2001), p. 9.
[iii] Constance Sheares, “Chua Ek Kay and His Paintings in the Merrill Lynch Collection,” Paintings by Chua Ek Kay, Collection of Merrill Lynch (Singapore: International Private Client Group Asia Pacific, Merrill Lynch, 2000), p. 17.
[iv] Conversation between the artist and Patricia Ong, 2005. Patricia Ong, “Yixi: An Introduction to the Exhibition,” Yixi: Recent Paintings of Chua Ek Kay (Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, 2005), p. 12.
[v] W.Y. Choy, ibid.

Documentation

Opening

Press

Reviews

an hour @ the museum – The Straits Times – 2012

回到母校怀抱 – 联合早报 – 2012

 

Listings

A Catholic High Reunion – The Straits Time – 2012

Chua Ek Kay trove at Catholic High – The Business Times – 2012

Inking A Reunion – The Straits Time – 2012

Old Campus Revisited A Chua Ek Kay Collection of the Catholic High School – 8 Days – 2012

Old Campus Revisited A Chua Ek Kay Collection of the Catholic High School – I.S Magazine – 2012

Old Campus Revisited A Chua Ek Kay Collection of the Catholic High School – Today – 2012