Introduction

In commemoration of the 5th anniversary of the passing of late Singaporean artist, Teng Nee Cheong (b. 1951-d. 2013), The Private Museum is pleased to present EMBODIMENT|SENTIENCE, featuring a selection of charcoal works between the 1970s and the 2000s—from the collection of the Artist’s Estate.

A Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts graduate and recipient of the Ministry of Culture Special Award in 1978, Teng is known for his distinct visual aesthetics in the use of vibrant colours and Southeast Asian
cultural motifs, drawing symbols from spiritual faiths such as Buddhism, Hinduism and even Balinese mythology.

Renowned for his impressive oil and pastel paintings, Teng’s intimate charcoal works have hardly been in the limelight, much less exhibited comprehensively. Far from just preliminary sketches, this exhibition marks the first extensive showcase of the artist’s charcoal drawings—a result of more than three decades of working with life models in his studio and abroad.

The exhibition explores themes such as dualities, sensualities, desires and perceptions of the human body through the artist’s inquisitive lens and the stark lines encapsulated by the alluring nudes. Deeply-personal and perhaps even provocative, EMBODIMENT|SENTIENCE attempts to lightly trace Teng’s art practice compelled by his fascination with and reverence for, the human figure.






Artist

Artist Biography

Teng Nee Cheong (b. 1951-d. 2013, Singapore) is an artist renowned for his exotic palette that reflects the various influences of cultures and traditions around Asia. His works use distinct symbols of adjacent cultures or religions, such as Balinese mythology, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

Born in 1951 in Singapore, geographically located in the hub of various cultural exchanges of Southeast Asia, Teng paints in oils and draws with charcoals, inspired by Asian mural paintings and Persian miniatures, in his depiction of flora in particular. Teng Nee Cheong studied at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in Singapore. His works was exhibited in Holland, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Paris, Singapore and United States. He was given numerous awards and his works are among the collections of the National Museum Art Gallery (Singapore), Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Singapore) and Neka Museum (Bali).

Teng passed away from nasopharyngeal carcinoma in 2013.

Art Education

1968-1970: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Singapore

Selected Awards

1996: Philip Morris ASEAN Art Awards, Singapore

1995: Philip Morris ASEAN Art Awards, Singapore

1993: Philip Morris ASEAN Art Awards, Singapore

1991: Singapore Art Society Tan Tze Chor Art Award

1982: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Alumni Association Creative Award

1978: Ministry of Culture Special Award

 

Selected Solo Exhibitions

2010: Those the Gods Love Grow Mightier, Gajah Gallery, Singapore

1998: Once Where Celestial Gods Frolicked, Jakarta, Indonesia

1992: Crescent Over the Equator, Shenn’s Gallery, Singapore

1980:  Art in Action, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore

 

Selected Group Exhibitions

2013: The Purest Song of Praise, Singapore

2011-2012: Plunder & Play · Art is a Lie, Singapore

2009: Daegu Art Fair, Daegu, Korea

2008: Commemorating A Decade: 1997-2007, Telok Kurau Annual Exhibition, Telok Kurau Studios, Singapore

2005: Wealth of Visions – The DBS Art Collection, The Art House at Old Parliament, Singapore Erotica, Tony Raka Gallery, Mas, Gianyar, Bali, Indonesia

2004: The 19th Asian International Art Exhibition, Fukouka Asian Art Museum, Japan

2000: Fireflies Calypso As Twilight Descends, The Philip Morris Group of Companies Singapore Art Awards 2000

1999: Abandoned Thoughts, Two-man Show, Art-2 Gallery, Singapore

1998: When the Season is Nigh, The Philip Morris Group of Companies Singapore Art Awards 1998

1996: Once Where Celestial Gods Frolicked, The Philip Morris Group of Companies Singapore Art Awards 1996, National Gallery, Bangkok, Thailand

1995-present:   Permanent Collection Exhibition, Neka Museum, Bali Indonesia

1995: Naked Thunder, The Philip Morris Group of Companies Singapore Art Awards, ASEAN Sect, Jakarta, Indonesia 1995

1993: A Timeless Bondage, The Philip Morris The Philip Morris Group of Companies Singapore Art Awards 1993

1991: 20 Singapore Artists Exhibition, USA

1989: ASEAN Travelling Exhibitions, ASEAN Countries

1988: Singapore Artists Exhibition, Hong Kong, China

1987: Artists Contemporains des Singapour”, Paris, France

1986: Festival of Arts, Art Forum, Singapore

1984: 2nd Young Artists Exhibition, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore

1982: Flora Fauna, Singapore

 

COLLECTIONS

Daniel Komala, Jakarta, Indonesia

Embassy of Singapore, Washington D,C,, USA

Embassy of Singapore, Tokyo, Japan

Embassy of Singapore, Bangkok, Thailand

Embassy of Singapore, Paris, France

Embassy of Singapore, Manila, Philippines

Jusuf Wanandi, C.S.I.S., Jakarta, Indonesia

Neka Art Museum, Bali, Indonesia

Singapore Art Museum, Singapore

The Development Bank of Singapore (DBS), Singapore

The Hilton Hotel, Singapore

The Hyatt Regency Hotel, Singapore

The Ministry of Community Development, Singapore

The Monetary Authority of Singapore, Singapore

United Overseas Bank Ltd. (UOB), Singapore

 

PUBLICATIONS
2010:
 Those the Gods Love Grow Mightier, Gajah Gallery, Singapore

2001: Telok Kurau Studios 2001, Singapore Impressions – Ingressions, Singapore Artist. CD-ROM, National Arts Council, Singapore

1999: Abandoned Thoughts, Publisher: Lim Tiong Ghee & Teng Nee Cheong, Singapore

1998: Once Where Celestial Gods Frolicked…, Garret Kam, editor. Teng Nee Cheong, Singapore

The Development of Painting in Bali: Selections from the Neka Art Museum (2nd revised edition), Suteja Neka and Garrett Kam, Yayasan Dharma Seni Museum Neka, Ubud, Bali, Indoneisa

1997: Southeast Asian Art: A New Spirit, Koh Buck Song and Jane Leong, editor. Art & Artists Speak, Singapore

1996: A Collector’s Journey: Modern Painting in Indonesia, Collection of Jusuf Wanandi. Agus Dermawan T., Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Jakarta and Neka Museum, Ubud, Bali, Indoneisa

1993: Crescent over the Equator: Teng Nee Cheong, with an introduction by TK Sabapathy, Teng Nee Cheong, Singapore

1991: Change: 20 Singapore Artist, A Decade of Their Work, TK Sabapathy and SV Krishnan, editors. Yeo Chew Hong, Singapore

1990: Singapore Artists Speak, Richard Lim, editor. C.H. Yeo, Singapore







Essay

Thoughts on Teng Nee Cheong and Drawing

by

T.K.Sabapathy

 

This is an account on drawings in Teng Nee Cheong’s art and of the scope, content and persistence of drawing in his practice. Writers have attended to these while appraising his practice although largely within sight of his paintings. The significance of drawing is acknowledged; its aesthetic distinctiveness is recognized. Yet, drawings tend to be presented in the company of and discussed in association with painted pictures. A delicate ambivalence prevails when seeing and talking about Nee Cheong’s graphic works. This account begins at this juncture and proceeds to examine this artist’s life-long involvement with drawing. It is the first such published study issued in conjunction with the first exhibition on drawing-as-such in his practice and art.

 

A second matter needs to be noted. This exhibition of drawings is devoted to representations of the human body as nude. Nee Cheong’s figural drawing is equated with the showing of undraped male and female bodies; it is assumed that bodies have always appeared so in his art and that they are affiliated with the artist’s self. This account turns it back on these surmises. It examines some of the earliest surviving materials indicating varied impetus and resources for drawing the human figure in Nee Cheong’s art, the crystallization of interests in the figure as a visual concept and form, and the realization of the body as nude in his figural drawing. The nude did not appear all at once and as completely formed; it emerged in the midst of a range of figural studies and representations. This account marks a detailed examination of drawing in this artist’s life; it does not, however, exhaust this enquiry and topic.

 

II

Drawings by Nee Cheong have appeared in exhibitions and publications along with his paintings. When appraising the two in an artist’s practice comparatively, tendencies veer towards placing drawings on subsidiary or supportive registers of importance; such inclinations stem from conventions for gauging the two asymmetrically whereby drawing’s significance in an artist’s work is measured largely as preparedly readying the creation of painted pictures which mark the ultimate destination for a visual artist. This is not to say that drawing is therefore irredeemably consigned to rungs below the sovereign standing of painting in all instances.

 

Hence Nee Cheong’s graphic works are created and publicly displayed as claiming equal status with painted compositions, even as one is affiliated with the other. This is especially so when representing the human figure which appears as transferrable and seen migrating between the two mediums. Drawings of the human body are, nevertheless, rendered, scaled, formatted, framed, shown in order to behold them as integral wholes and to impart commanding pictorial presences. As pictures, each holds its own sphere of attention affirmatively.

 

In these situations drawings are seen autonomously; that is to say as pictures in their own right, conceived and executed as singular graphic works with inherent qualities and value. Even as kinship with painting is visible, and often it is palpably apparent, drawings created by Nee Cheong bearing these traits are esteemed as distinct and separately compelling, as art works.

 

The prestige accorded to drawing springs from criteria such as those I mention. When assessing Nee Cheong’s art, Lindy Poh hoists his graphic works onto elevated spheres enabling her to focus on and appreciate drawings as works in their own right in this vein. Here is an extract from an essay that directs attention to the appeal and gravity of such pictures.

 

Characteristically executed on large sheets of paper (measuring

56x76cm), Nee Cheong’s drawing stands out not only for

technical virtuosity but also for their unusual luminosity and

translucence – that astonishing ‘liquid’ quality that has become

his hallmark. Nee Cheong’s graphite drawings are regarded as

‘autonomous’ or independent of his paintings (as opposed to

functioning as preparatory sketches for oil works). Still, the

artist points out that they bear a significant link to his paintings,

and often act as a kind of ‘matrix’ or template that is used and

adapted in various compositions.[1]

 

It is a complexly etched profile of a kind of drawing that she highlights as appealing, prominent, accomplished and critically salient. Yet its significance in Nee Cheong’s practice is hedged, partly by including the artist’s appraisal, which is given deferential prominence and partly by Lindy Poh’s ambivalence. It would be useful to see the figure as co-existing in drawing and in painting, thereby freeing one from obligations for regarding one as serving the other, generally.

 

Drawings are produced to meet with interests other than what I have described and Lindy Poh underscores. They are, for instance, undertaken as studies: for deepening  understanding/knowing his subjects and the self; for cultivating thought processes for creatively furthering, consolidating an art practice; for developing representational and expressive capacities when employing drawing as a medium; and for advancing his art along sustaining, continually exploratory pathways.

 

Drawings as studies may yield other outcomes. They may mark preparatory stages, signify stepping-stones for crystallizing subsequent compositions, progressively advancing them until they are regarded as ‘finished works’. Artists conventionally and frequently employ drawing for these purposes; in studying them we gather deep knowledge of processes, methods entailed in the making of art works in particular practices. Lindy Poh mentions drawings executed as preparatory studies in the citation inserted above; in that connection she reports Nee Cheong saying he sees his graphic works as leading to painted compositions, thereby underlining their relative position to painting. She makes no comment on this matter, which needs not remain unexamined. I return to it later and in the meanwhile continue enumerating kinds of drawing by mentioning one more. In yet other instances drawings as studies may consist of notations of nuclear notions or first thoughts or of getting-to-know gestures and markings. In these, imagery is suggestively, incompletely, extemporarily given graphic form.

 

I round off these thoughts by briefly dwelling on the lives of drawings. How are they featured when beholding a creative practice unfold? How, when are they utilized as references, resources, stimuli, provocations for furthering an artist’s art, especially an artist such as Nee Cheong who produces drawings continually throughout his life? Such questions propel this account; answers are offered occasionally when attending to resolutions and productions sparked by contingencies prevailing at particular moments in his art’s history. For this occasion I forward two observations pertaining to lives of drawings spurred by interests in tracking routes that indicate development and disruption or change in Nee Cheong’s practice.

 

Firstly, drawings as studies may be short-lived; they testify momentary, shifting engagements. In other words they do not appear as begetting progeny by way of germinating new, advanced pictorial representations. In these circumstances they chronicle graphic acts of seeing, perceiving and making at specific stages over durations that are brief and signifying stand-alone outcomes. Such drawings constitute primary materials for ascertaining an individual’s visual field of interest, drafting abilities or propensities and artistic achievement, specifically.

 

Drawings as studies may be, on the other hand and secondly, vitalized by Nee Cheong for spurring his art further and for consolidating formal and symbolic properties in particular works; these choices and decisions may lead to creating paintings and drawings as worked-out compositions, subsequently. That is to say, an artist’s own works prompt or give rise to new creations within that artist’s practice. It is in this sense that Lindy Poh refers to the vital impact of drawing on painting when relationships between the two are seen via the lens of the artist. Drawings as studies by an artist may be viewed as resources by other artists who seize and appropriate imagery from Nee Cheong’s graphic oeuvre for use in their respective practices or for consolidating a specific production.[2] When writers attend to these matters critically and comparatively, they bring into relief networks whereby art, artists and art practices are juxtaposed; networks that may yield examinations along art historical perspectives.

 

III

The earliest surviving studies date from the late 1960s, coinciding with his enrolment in the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in the years 1968-1970. Drawings as studies are pursued intensely in the 1970s and through the 1980s. Nee Cheong utilizes a wide variety of paper, bound as note books and assembled as sketch pads; these are not in all instances manufactured, formatted and readied for special use in art studies – indicating a necessity and willingness for employing available, affordable paper. These studies are made in charcoal, one of the oldest material and hand-held points for registering marks on surfaces – especially paper. It is immensely versatile; Nee Cheong deepens his familiarity with its propensities and selectively exploits its properties.

 

The human figure is a recurring, dominant topic; at times landscape is represented for which watercolour is used. Buildings are featured, from time to time. Sketches are produced while traveling, in Thailand, east coast of peninsular Malaysia and Indonesia; in them monuments, marine and riverine settlements and figures in domestic and work spaces are shown. Depictions of things or objects arranged as rudimentary still life appear; these are subsequently developed in his paintings in the 1980s, where they are seen as imposingly designed imagery, bearing complex symbolic import. These are executed as complete works and quite frequently as pictures consisting of elaborate iconographies in which langorously posed, self-absorbed (narcissistic) male and female nude figures are entwined with still life arrangements.

 

Before proceeding to examine drawings in some detail I briefly mention Nee Cheong’s tenure as a student in the academy, especially as it impinges upon his practice and development of drawing. Among his teachers were Georgette Chen and Ng Yat-Chuan. The former is prominently installed in stories of art in Singapore and therefore tends to be mentioned deferentially, preferentially when there is talk of Nee Cheong’s teachers. Ng Yat-Chuan who is virtually absent from reigning accounts of artists here is, on the other hand, shunted to a secondary register in the telling of this artist’s life; yet he is significant.[3]

 

I have no wish to align the two as rivals for attention but to point out that Yat-Chuan was a formative teacher who inculcated in students the importance of drawing for systematically developing capacities for visual thinking.  He devised drawings as studio demonstrations of technical and cognitive processes for seeing, analyzing and realizing forms and imagery. For instance a figure was studied as wholes, as fragments and partially, as seen from multiple and shifting viewpoints; these were graphically registered on a single sheet of paper enabling the seeing of processes by which pictorial units or entities are formed and for seeing them collectively and comparatively.[4] It is a pedagogical devise entrenched in academies of art. Nee Cheong absorbed and employed it fervently. Conceived and continually tested as a method, it endures in his practice of drawing and distinguishes it. It would not be unreasonable to propose that the wellsprings of this method are traceable to Ng Yat-Chuan’s teaching of drawing in the academy.

 

Remembrance and esteem of his teacher may be gleaned from a photograph of the two, illustrated in a book titled Nee Cheong. Those the Gods Love Grow Mightier, published in 2010. It was taken when Nee Cheong visited the art gallery of the National Institute of Education (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore) in 2009 on the occasion of Yat-Chuan’s exhibition of his drawings. The two appear convivial and at ease with one another (Ill 1). Cheo Chai-Hiang and Cecily Cheo, who conceptualized and curated this show, tell me that Yat-Chuan conveyed to them his high regard for Nee Cheong, especially his graphic works.[5]

 

IV

Interests in this exhibition and the publication are in drawing the human figure. It appears at the beginning of Nee Cheong’s artistic life, settles as the dominant preoccupation in his practice and endures to the very end. It is unrivalled. As a subject, a motif, as imagery, the figure is represented continually, ambitiously and consummately as no other. The body, female and male, is shown in his developed drawings preponderantly as nude. Lindy Poh nails Nee Cheong’s involvement as obsessive. He was, she remarks, “manic-obsessive about his studies of the human anatomy typically taking 3 hours at a stretch to complete a single pose.”[6] Models who have worked for and with the artist say as much.[7]

 

Lindy Poh is absolutely right. What she says, though, is prompted by seeing figural drawings that are highly advanced in an art practice made up of years of looking at models and compressing bodies as graphic forms on flat (paper) surfaces, and from gauging a studio regime that had been firmly established. By the 1980s figural drawing is deeply rooted in Nee Cheong’s art; in that decade too the nude is etched as the unmatched topic in drawing and in figural drawing as a picture category. These resolutions did not materialize all at once; neither were they determined completely all of the time.

 

Drawings produced in the early 1970s illustrate varied interests when dealing with figures. These spring from familial, social and institutional milieus as well as from examining the self.  Such a range is not exceptional. Artists often begin informal and formal studies by depicting family members, friends and acquaintances, fellow students and teachers, bodies at work and disposed in leisure, and so on. Imagery is registered when seeing them as pictorial subjects, at times in unrehearsed, un-staged situations and at other times by consolidating them formally as consciously posed and selectively positioned.

 

A number of sheets survive, consisting of depictions of Madam Dien Sau Ing – Nee Cheong’s grandmother; he was especially attached to her. They may be regarded as portraits in the sense that the subject is known and named, relationships with the artist are deep and emotionally binding, and the imagery bears traits that are closely observed and specific. In Ill2a she is shown virtually full length in bed, propped on pillows; a four-legged table with bowls is placed close by the bed. She is presented in profile. Her head is modeled quite firmly; eyes are closed and the mouth is slack and opened. Her knuckles and wrist-joints are prominently registered, indicating ageing, infirmity and the depletion of bone and muscle formations.

 

The entire left side of the figure is in shadow, enabling Nee Cheong to render this portion as asserting weight and density. Deep shadows are registered when the body leans, presses against the pillows; charcoal is compressed firmly, thickly and intensely on the paper surface. Her left arm is underscored by repeated, thick linear formations, laid one on another. The body is undeniably ageing; Madame Dien as a grandmother, though, is presented as asserting a visible presence – pictorially at least.

 

In Ill 2b Madam Dien reappears; she is treated with radically altered interests. She is presented partially, as only her upper body is visible; apart from her head which is, as in the earlier drawing, modeled confidently, the remainder of her upper body is faintly rendered, with traces of broken lines suggesting a severely bent (arthritic?) right hand. She is fast asleep. The focus is on the head.

 

The head of Madam Dien is represented severally on the sheet of paper; each consists of a summary configuration cast in profile and occasionally frontally. Facial features are reduced and even omitted, thereby setting aside salient markers of individual identity and of personhood; setting aside too the artist’s deep emotional ties with his grandmother. Interspersed among them is imagery of hands, similar to their depiction noted earlier. The head is now a source for systematically, serially developing formal concepts and for furthering capacities of drawing as a representational and expressive medium for depicting the human figure/body. In these regards Nee Cheong is employing schemes devised and demonstrated by Ng Yat-Chuan while teaching drawing in the academy.

 

Ills 3a and b are drawings featuring the self; there are a number that survive, a few bearing the date 1972. It is probable that all such pictures were executed in or approximating that year. As images they are presented as bust-length and head representations, conforming to sub-sets in the portrait genre.

 

It is customary to refer to relationships between artist and sitter in conventions for making portraits. Such a nexus is immensely complicated, even nullified in self-portraits where the artist is not easily, stably seeing the self simultaneously as a sitter and an artist. This generates sustained tensions, often transmitted to the creation of such images. In Ill 3a, Nee Cheong the subject hovers into view, effectively as a disembodied entity as the representation is not discernibly located in pictorial space; the image is seen as a form that condenses on the paper surface. His head is slightly inclined, resting on his right hand, which cups his ear and cheek firmly, protectively. Facial features are rendered with near-sculptural firmness and weight. His wrist and fingers are drawn with anatomical precision. His appearance is tangibly formed; his demeanour, however, is recessed and distant. His eyes are opened and deemed as nominally seeing; they are cast in deep shadow and not fixedly connecting with the world beyond the picture.

 

In Ill 3b he is shown assertively; the image nearly fills the page. The head, positioned firmly on his shoulders, dominates; it extends almost to the top edge of the paper. The neck is tensed as it emerges from an open-collared shirt. The remainder of the upper body fades from view. As in Ill 3a, here too the hand is prominently represented. It is cupped, poised and alert. The impact of its formation as a gesture is not easily decidable although it is compelling visually. Nee Cheong as the picture’s subject looks out, full face;  his bespectacled eyes are decisively focused. He is watchful, turned outward to the world. Yet his raised hand wards off any presumed tendencies for gaining access or entry into his image, and to his-self.

 

Portraits and portraiture are short-lived; they are visible with recognizable frequency in the early 1970s, are glimpsed intermittently in the middle of that decade – often interspersed with other notations of partial figures on a single sheet – and slip out of view during the closing years of the seventies. This is not to say that the human figure is abandoned. Not at all! It is henceforth cultivated to satisfy different interests and goals; figural drawing increasingly features the human figure in its entirety or fully, without bearing overt symbolic and personalized significance; the human figure is also represented as nude. The latter gathers momentum swiftly, accelerates to extents it dominates Nee Cheong’s visual field. The nude is installed in his practice of drawing as the unrivalled topic in the 1980s and continues to reign until the end of his artistic life. It is along these sight lines that Nee Cheong’s figural drawings tend to be viewed exclusively as representing the human body as nude. Such a destiny or resolution was secured over time; it was consolidated by seeing models with sustained concentration and graphically transforming perceptions of them as bodies, inscribing them with charcoal on paper.

 

Quite an extensive range of early drawings of the human figure survives; in all likelihood executed in the decade when Nee Cheong represented his grandmother and the self as portraits, i.e. 1970s, after he had completed his studentship in the academy.  When examining these we discern the progressive emergence of the figure as a topic in his art and of its dominance. They are studies made in charcoal set on modestly sized, irregularly formatted paper. Representations are of figures that are full length, partial and fragmented. At times a number of notations are registered on a single sheet, probably at different times.

 

Nee Cheong deals with figures that are seated, standing, reclining and in active positions; he views them from the front, the rear, in profile and as made up of mixed viewpoints; it is at times partial. Infrequently a figure is seen from a raised perch looking down on a body lying on a ground, Ill 4; it is an occasion for displaying abilities to visually conjure a sense of seeing a three-dimensional object on a flat surface as inhabiting in space. In this drawing a body, rendered as tangible, is aligned diagonally and seen as receding into space when viewed from its head towards the feet. These studies demonstrate Nee Cheong’s methodical visual examination of the figure, his systematic cultivation of graphic vocabulary for seeing the body acutely and articulating it confidently in pictorial form.  Drawing is employed as a formative, enduring medium. From time to time in these explorations the figure appears as nude; it is female and male.

 

Ill 5a shows a seated female nude in three-quarter view, in a pose customary in figure studies. Her arms are raised and held behind her head while her torso is presented in full view. Her legs are folded and set in a direction opposite to the placement of her torso. Her upper and lower sections of her body are set at right angles to one another. She is located towards the top edge of the picture surface, removed to an elevated viewing level. Her body is drawn with tentative, light, infirm contours; cross-hatching faintly suggests the mass of her abdomen and breasts. In Ill 5b the nude is standing and shown to knee length; her head is turned towards her right and inclined downwards and partially out of view; her arms are folded over and cover her breasts. The figure is enclosed, turned within itself even as the body is nude and in view.

 

In each of Ills 6a,b is a male figure, seated and differently posed; one appears as nude. These are among conventions for studying the academy nude. Nee Cheong’s representations of the body are firmly anchored in these conventions; he painstakingly examines them, gaining mastery of seeing and registering the human figure. He never abandons the body. Its appeal is lodged early in his artistic life. The drawings examined here demonstrate these stages of his practice.

 

In Ill 6b the figure is presented complicatedly and demandingly. Nee Cheong has to scrupulously attend to the body’s anatomy, examine its details and articulate the figure as an integral form. He meets these tasks confidently and consistently. This is a physically consolidated, sensually inflected representation of a male body. Its genitals are rendered clearly and are just as clearly in view. The figures in these illustrations are represented firmly, concretely – setting them apart from drawings of the female nudes discussed earlier.

 

IV

From the 1980s onwards Nee Cheong professionalizes his practice by securing and establishing a studio and by recruiting models professionally. Drawings of the nude are studio-based enterprises; the nude is seen in the studio – its birthplace and locus. Nee Cheong’s studio is initially installed in his residence; it is subsequently established as a separate work place, adequately safeguarded for presenting the undraped human body as nude for representation in art. He secures these provisions by professionalizing his art, cultivating clients/patrons for acquiring his works, maintaining all of these at requisite levels for advancing his practice.

 

The studio is the birthing site for his drawings. Nee Cheong is not exceptional in this regard, although in dealing with the body as nude such a location is especially pertinent and is a defining environment. Ills 6a and b indicate their place of creation by featuring props for staging the figure. Figural drawings produced subsequently may not necessarily do so. In them, the figure often appears as though it is un-located; this is one way of seeing them. Another is to discern their habitat primarily as defined by the surface on which they appear; they exist virtually on/in picture surfaces.

 

Extant writings on Nee Cheong’s drawings tend to focus on developed stages of his art, namely: the 1990s and onwards, when the figure is firmly, assertively and dramatically displayed. These are undeniably hard-won productions entailing sustained thought and abilities cultivated over thirty years of continued practice. The interest in this account has been in tracing the beginnings and examining the gradual development of his practice. It now turns briefly to talk about the symbolic import of, especially, the male nude in Nee Cheong’s drawings.

 

Lindy Poh highlights this artist’s commitment to drawing and his exceptionality in remaining “one of a handful of Singapore artists noted for their outstanding figurative drawings.” She also mentions the sensuous, erotic, homoerotic tenor of his nudes, suggesting that they may in turn allude to and mask impetus emerging from particular sexual identities, such as those embodied by gays. These are undoubtedly complex, difficult to talk of matters; their representation is conditioned and constrained by laws and norms prevailing in Singapore (sex between males is criminalized).

 

Bodies are gendered. When represented as nude, the body’s gender, which is its defining property, is displayed as sexually enhanced – i.e. as emphatically male, as complicatedly female and as ambivalent. Beholding the nude is to encounter sexuality; and sexuality is a powerful, inherently human trait.  Of course nude presentations yield manifold significance; at times they tend towards sublimating sexuality by elevating the body onto metaphorical registers. Nee Cheong’s drawings, especially of the partial figure and to an extent figures viewed predominantly from the rear, evoke such associations (IIls 7,8). Writers who comment on his figural compositions prefer appraising his representations of the nude in this vein.

 

At times presentations may yield sexuality unexpectedly, starkly. Among Nee Cheong’s drawings of the male nude are representations of the body that depart from (heterosexual) conventions for showing the nude; they are homoerotic, where images of the body are shown as emerging from male pleasure stimulated by viewing the male body. In them, sexual potency is conveyed explicitly by enhancing male genitalia and, rarely, by displaying oral sexual acts. Sexual potency is implicitly depicted by bodily gesture, posture and pose, amplifying details of the anatomy and by the proximity of the body as a graphic image to the viewer. In the majority of such representations, the nude appears as an isolated entity, alone, on the picture surface.

 

In ending this account one matter needs mentioning. Are these representations on display in this exhibition necessarily expressions of the artist’s self and of his sexual identity? Low Sze Wee in an endnote for an essay on Nee Cheong’s figurative pictures enters the following disclosure: “In a recent interview Nee Cheong commented that whenever he painted figures (be it male or female), he often imagined that he was the subject being painted.”[8] Low Sze Wee offers no comment on its pertinence for talking about the artist’s work.

 

It is a tantalizing disclosure and needs to be examined. For the present these observations are offered. Self-identity is not self-depiction. Connections between who an artist is and the substance and appearance of art works created by that very artist are not direct and given; neither are the artist and the created work one and the same. If it were, it would be disastrous and of no interest for anyone. Nee Cheong’s representations of the human figure are fuelled by his imagination, his conviction in the anxious yet profound significance of the body (including its homoerotic/erotic potency), his unceasing drive for producing art, his perception and position of the world and his quiet desire to connect with the public.  These may well be transmitted and transformed by notions of the self, but they are not manifestations of the self represented in his figural drawings.[9]

[1] Lindy Poh, ‘Those the Gods Love Grow Mightier’, Nee Cheong. Those the Gods Love Grow Mightier, Teng Nee Cheong and Gajah Gallery, Singapore, 2010, p 23. A number of writers endorse the dual status of drawing in Nee Cheong’s art.

[2] In his picture titled Pemberontakan Harun Manis (Mango Mutiny), dated 2014, Jimmy Ong inserts into it a reworked female figure derived from Nee Cheong’s drawing. For a discussion of Jimmy Ong’s approach to works by other artists as resources for his productions see T.K.Sabapathy, From Bukit Larangan to Borobudur, Recent Drawings by Jimmy Ong, 2000-2015, Fost Gallery, Singapore, 2016.

[3] Lindy Poh names the two as making enduring impressions on Nee Cheong as a student. She focuses on Georgette Chen’s charismatic impact and reports Nee Cheong’s recollection of his teacher’s “mantra of ‘3Ps – proportion, positions and perspective’”. She proceeds to describe apprehensions by students as “the petite Chen gracefully moved from student to student. Some would recoil as she deftly but surely refined their works with her sticks of charcoal.” Nee Cheong. Those the Gods Love Grow Mightier, p 23. Yat-Chuan, on the other hand is not discussed beyond his mention; he disappears.

Nee Cheong’s recollection is as follows: “My passion for drawing started with two teachers at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts – Georgette Chen and Ng Yat Chuan. From Mr Ng I learnt much observing his quiet confident ways of control and contrast. From Madam Chen, I learnt the no-nonsense, no-pampering and matter-of-fact method of drawing, bearing in mind her three Ps- position, proportion and perspective.” ‘Decadent in Ways Mortals Fear. Commentaries by Teng Nee Cheong’,  Nee Cheong. Those the Gods Love Grow Mightier, p 84.

When viewing erotic prints by artists from China and Japan, Nee Cheong is puzzled and entranced by the treatment of human figures in them, which he sees as violating principles he had been taught at the academy. He says that the anatomies of the figures in these prints are “violating the ‘3Ps’ my teacher Georgette Chen held dear – proportion, position, perspective – be damned!” he then adds: “incidentally she never encouraged nude study when she was teaching” in the academy. Ibid, p113.

[4] Cecily Cheo sharply notes the biased, preferential appraisals of artists in exhibitions and in art writing. She says: “Right at Home. Drawings and Prints by Ng Yat-Chuan is the first one-person exhibition of this accomplished artist to take place in Singapore since 1966. That this artist’s work has remained un-shown for so many years, in a country the size of Singapore, with its small, close-knit community must give rise to many questions. It is interesting to speculate, for instance, why one artist’s work can be shown with monotonous regularity, while another’s work remains hidden from public view; or why one artist’s career can attract exuberant, political and state patronage, while another’s continues its slow growth in the shadows of a very private life led far from the lime light. These questions are useful, as they should encourage in the viewer a healthy skepticism about what might presently constitute any ‘official’ record of art history in Singapore.” Right at Home: Drawings and Prints by Ng Yat-Chuan, National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, 2009, p6. For intimations of connections between Georgette Chen and Ng Yat-Chuan see Yvonne Low, ‘Re-Introducing Ng Yat-Chuan, Right at Home, pp 13-16. I am deeply indebted for information and insights into Ng Yat-Chuan’s drawing and teaching at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts to writings by Cecily Cheo and Yvonne Low as they are featured in this publication.

[5] This was conveyed in a telephone conversation with Cheo Chai-Hiang and Cecily Cheo on 16 August, 2018.

[6] Lindy Poh, Nee Cheong. Those the Gods Love, p23.

[7] I have met with one of the models who is professionally named as Kim, who candidly and enthusiastically discussed his meeting with and working for Nee Cheong. Kim recalls the artist as decisive and demanding, requiring that a gesture or a pose be held for lengthy durations. Nee Cheong was also unfailingly respectful in his conduct. When he needed to touch the model’s body to adjust or alter a position, it was with expressed consent of the model. Unlike, as Kim relates, other situations in which he had been intrusively, crudely and brusquely handled.

Nora, one of Nee Cheong’s favoured female models, is effusive in her commendation and recollections. She says Nee Cheong helped her to cultivate self-confidence. She forged a life-long friendship with the artist. I have not met Nora. She has written a moving commemorative note.

Reminiscences and tributes by Kim and Nora are published in this volume. They may well mark the very first identification of models and representations of their voices in accounts of artists in Singapore. Relationships between artists and models, in instances where they are entrenched in practices here, are un-researched and un-written.

[8] Low Sze Wee, ‘Between the Real and the Imagined’, Nee Cheong. Those the Gods Love Grow Mightier, p8.

[9] The focus in this study is trained on Nee Cheong to extents that comparative discussion of representations of the figure/body/nude in the art of Ng Eng Teng, Siew Hock Meng, Jimmy Ong and Group 90 has been, regrettably, set aside.



 



Documentation

Opening Reception
Thursday, 4 October 2018
Guest of Honour:
Mr Low Sze Wee
Chief Executive Officer
Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre
 

 

 

 

Estate & Model Dialogue
Saturday, 6 October 2018

The Artist’s Estate represented by Suzie Teng will be in conversation with Kim, a male life model who worked extensively with the artist in the last decade of his practice. This rare dialogue offers an opportunity to understand the processes behind his art practice and more importantly, a chance to remember the remarkable artist, Teng Nee Cheong.