The Fine Art Auction: Soo Pieng Cheong

One of the leaders of Singaporean modern art, Soo Pieng Cheong has influenced a generation of artists, both through his own practice and over twenty years of teaching at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. Cheong holds the honour of his famous work, Drying Salted Fish 1978, being featured on the Singaporean fifty dollar note. Women with elongated limbs and almond shaped eyes are distinctive characteristics of his work and are common to Drying Salted Fish and Two Women (lot 241).

32Born and educated in China, Cheong moved to Singapore in 1945 and toured throughout Southeast Asia and Europe. Inspired by his extensive travel, Soo Pieng Cheong incorporated both Western abstract and traditional Chinese ink and oil painting techniques to represent scenes from Southeast Asia, hence the term Nanyang (directly translated to ‘South-Seas’) art.  In 1952 he and three other Singaporean based Chinese artists travelled to Bali. This trip was crucial to Soo Pieng Cheong’s practice and to the development of Singaporean art. Following this trip and throughout his career Cheong would return to the representation of the remote villages he saw in Bali. In the two village scenes offered (lots 242 & 243) we see the convergence of Western and Chinese art traditions with the use of abstract gestures in ink, a medium central to Chinese scroll painting. Lot243 works within the confines of the traditional Chinese ink colour scheme to present geometric houses in a landscape while lot 242 subverts the traditional use of black ink by including vibrant colour to portray an ideallic, fertile land.

Lesser known are Soo Pieng Cheong’s late 1960s and early 1970s works in which the artist used found objects and metal to produce relief works (see lot 241). These relief works, which are rarely seen on the auction market, feature a unique use of metal, hessian and tile. The figures here are represented in a domestic scene and feature the relaxed elegance common to his representation of Southeast Asian women. As Singaporean art historian T.K. Sabapathy notes, the artist ‘did not confine himself to the medium of painting; he also produced sculptures and sought to extend the parameters of painting, particularly in relation to surface and material properties, space, form, textures, figure-ground relationships, imagery and narrative’.  His innovative talents are evident in the three works offered in this auction, which have remained in a private collection for over four decades.

i T.K. Sabapathy, National Art Gallery, Singapore,, accessed 22/2/13

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Nicole Salvo
Assistant Head of Art
T: 03 8825 5624