“AFTER finish painting, you need to clean your brush thoroughly using turpentine, then with soap. After that, soak your brush in hot water, and then dry it. Do you get it?”
That was a piece of valuable advice I received 33 years ago from my lecturer, Choong Kam Kow. At that time, he had just returned from his studies in New York under the Fulbright Research programme, and I was in my third year of Fine Art study at Institut Teknologi MARA, Shah Alam. We often hear people talk about this sort of discipline and attitude, but Choong seems to represent the perfect example of how to put this into effective practice: two 7-cm brushes that he has been using since the 60’s are still kept in good condition in his studio.
Sometimes when I was deeply engrossed in painting, a lecturer by the name of Tang Tuck Kan would stand behind me, whispering into my ears that the colours on my palette looked much better than those on the landscape I was working on. Wouldn’t that upset you? But that is the learning situation every student has to go through. At one time, they are given all kinds of motivation and encouragement, and at another time, they are subject to various kinds of intimidation and pestering.
Maintaining good discipline in studio practice, abiding to certain rules and regulations, and coping with stressful emotions are part of the normal life of an artist. After being involved in art for so many years, these things have become so ingrained in my personal life and artistic career. Keeping tight discipline and knowing how to deal with emotional outbursts are evidently two elements key to becoming a strong-willed, spirited and principled individual. But that was in the 80’s, and things have probably changed a lot since then. What I have managed to sketch above is only a glimpse of the scenario that had partly coloured Choong’s life in the 80’s.
Besides possessing a mind with creative power and critical acumen, an artist also should have a set of proper equipment and materials that can serve as a basis for him to achieve excellence in his art-making. For serious-minded artists, tools should be respected and handled with care. They are like weapons that can be used in the battle to resolve technical issues and, eventually, to gain long-term success. One of my art teachers only allowed his students to use equipment that they made themselves, and they were totally prohibited from buying any art tools. Just imagine how a student of photography in the 60’s and 70’s was required to fabricate his own camera as a way to make him really understand the role of light in photography. When he was a young artist, Choong also went through a similar kind of experience. For young generation artists of today, this story might sound utterly ridiculous, and the situation I describe might seem absurd. They perhaps think that it would be better for them to just avoid being in such a situation.
When he was 29, Choong had already produced a number of works in mixed media. This was the beginning of his employment of mixed media as one of the main approaches in his artistic practice. Over the years, we observe that mixed media has become the signature medium of his art. His earlier mixed media works can be found in the Kinta Series that he created throughout the 50’s and 60’s. Village by Water (1963) and Beautiful River Side 4 (1964) are regarded as incredibly vital in the historical development of Choong’s art.
His interest in mixed media is fundamental to his artistic endeavours. Working in mixed media provides him opportunities to broaden the reach of his artistic practice and to enhance his creativity. The artworks he subsequently produces mostly rely on this approach. He believes that employing a variety of methods and processes can significantly affect the quality of an artwork, as undoubtedly evident in the majority of his art. His application of printmaking elements certainly signals his keen exploitation of mixed media and diverse techniques in his artworks.
As mentioned previously, Choong’s art-making approach has always been highly technical, meticulous and well-organised. He pays close attention not only to tools but also to materials and techniques he is using, which he considers very essential for his artistic practice. Additionally, this approach leads him to undergo various processes that can result in novel, fresh and fascinating visual language. In the Kinta Series, he tried to combine the ‘masculine’ elements of the European watercolour painting with the ‘feminine’ aspects of the traditional Chinese watercolour painting on the surface of thin rice paper. In traditional Chinese paintings, the elements, or most probably the philosophical dimensions, of Yin and Yang are represented by images of mountains, clouds, rocks, and flowing rivers. However, in his Kinta paintings, the meaning and philosophy of Yin and Yang is essentially echoed in the technical approach taken up by the artist. This series marked an amazing and historic development in the formative period of Choong’s artistic career. It was this series that prompted him to further expand his interest in exploring mixed media technique, causing him to discover more opportunities and possibilities that can have more profound, meaningful implications on his art.
His stay in New York from 1965 to 1969 has greatly influenced him. According to him, New York in the early 60’s was a haven for immigrants as it offered a vast range of possibilities, assistance and expertise in whatever fields they wished to participate. It was entirely up to them to decide on which one to go for.
His stay in the city gave him a wide exposure to the genre of printmaking. In the 60’s, printmaking activities were being pursued actively in New York with the mushrooming of many printmaking studios and publishing houses. He started exploring various kinds of printing techniques, including acid etching, lithography and silkscreen, as can be seen in Conflict (1967; acid etching) and Reclining Figure (1968; lithography).
For him, the process of producing prints is markedly different from that of creating traditional paintings, which was his only passion then. Printmaking practice basically requires attention to detail and accuracy, but this does not mean that it totally disregards Choong’s personality and behaviour. Here, he began experimenting with roller as a stenciling tool to generate geometric forms that were fairly new and unusual for him at that time.
The outcome of this new approach can be detected in the mixed media work titled Sea Beach (1967). This work clearly shows Choong’s endless nostalgia for the picturesque landscape of the Kinta Valley, his birthplace that largely helped shape his socio-cultural values and his respect for Nature.
Nevertheless, living in a highly developed metropolitan city forced him to face different and alien socio-cultural realities. This naturally led Choong to reflect upon himself and his identity. Colourful geometric motifs on richly textured and impastoed canvases manifest his constant restlessness and agony living in a foreign land.
One interesting aspect of this work is that the geometric forms were made by means of stenciling using printing roller instead of brush, a tool he had been using extensively all this while. Since he could use brush with great ease and complexity, why did he employ the technique of stencilling? Stencilling is the easiest and the most basic method of producing prints, while silkscreening is the most complicated one. In my opinion, this work is extremely important as it indicates the beginning of Choong’s practice of using the medium of printmaking in his art, which falls in line with his tendency towards eclectic approaches. The seemingly easy technique of stencilling has come to be widely used for the creation of many of his artworks. When he first came to New York, geometric shapes and forms in the surrounding environment really irritated him. However, he gradually came to appreciate the beauty in modern design and in the forms symbolising rapid industrial developments in the U.S. In this regard, we should take heed of the advice from our ancestors: You will never fall in love with something until you know it well!
He started experimenting with the technique of stencilling with more accuracy, meticulousness and complexity. If stencilling in the Sea Beach Series (1967) was employed as a way to express the condition of his soul, stencilling in the Shaped Canvas Series (1968 until 1972) purely served as a ‘mandatory’ approach to achieve aesthetic goals. That is why this later series mostly features paintings in the style of hard-edge abstraction. The configurations must be sharp and clearly defined, and the colours must be bright and eye-catching! There is no compromise in these matters. In hard-edge paintings, colour areas must be sharply delineated by implied lines that can be accomplished by means of stencilling, one of the techniques of printmaking. Choong’s achievement in this is evident particularly in the works titled Vibration(1970) and Illusion (1969).
These paintings remind me of hard-edge compositions produced by several local artists, such as Tang Tuck Kan and Kok Yew Puah, as well as Lim Eng Hooi whom I visited in Penang a few years ago. What we can deduce from this is that an artist’s sojourn in a foreign country can open him up to an entirely new world full of possibilities and opportunities – provided he is sensitive and perceptive enough to draw benefits from these. After this series of hard-edge paintings, Choong once again applied the technique of stencilling in several works in the SEA-THRU Series. However, in this series, he did not only use plywood boards but also acrylic sheets. Stenciled in an assortment of colours, these materials appear to generate new spaces when combined toether. These works are presented in the form resembling wall sculptures. Mirrors and the play of light lend an interactive character to these pieces. Without the artist realising it, the application of multicoloured stencilled lines in this series served as a starting point for the construction of motifs and forms in the subsequent Festival Series that took the packaging elements of traditional cakes and thekelarai patterns of traditional weaving as its main reference points.
In 1977, Choong produced a photo-silkscreen titled 5th Month Festival. It is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. This work features an image of one of his children and a motif of kuih chang against the background of Chinese characters. A seminal print work in the Festival Series, it reveals the artist’s search for cultural similarities between different ethnic groups in Malaysia. The first piece to be created in the remarkably interesting Festival Series, it does not only express the artist’s personal concern but also conveys a profoundly positive and constructive idea. This print work does not include any elements of mixed media. However, when Choong wanted to expand this Festival Series, he of course turned to his ‘signature formula’, i.e. applying mixed media and techniques. He was very sure and confident that by applying this formula he would reach a more exciting and convincing new direction in his art-making.
We need to realise that the situation of children’s early education in the period before and after Independence was very much different from that in our present time, especially in view of today’s advancement in technology and communications. In general, pre-Independence generations were mostly trained in handicraft making and handmade art. Since young, they were taught the art of weaving, carving, basketry, sewing, and so on. Learning skills in handicraft was crucial because during the period most people lived in poverty and could not afford basic needs. They had to make everything by themselves, including preparations to celebrate all kinds of festivals and events considered special for each ethnic group in Malaysia.
Choong Kam Kow is an artist who was born during the era. Well-trained in handicraft, he is equipped with the skills that can be used not only to preserve local culture but also to create attractive works of art important to our multiracial Malaysian nation. After so many years of exposure to craft-making, he has attained a high level of creative skills, and a high degree of sensitivity towards and insight into materials. This can be observed particularly in his skilful use of paper pulp and industrial metals in the Festival series to fabricate three-dimensional models of objects and artefacts related to traditional festivals, which he then arranged on the surface of his works. Festive Mood 2 (1987) presents a good example of his creative manipulation and treatment of materials.
His idea of employing mixed media clashed somewhat with the notion of art-making espoused by minimalist and conceptual artists of the 60’s with their greater emphasis on the exploration of ideas rather than of materials. Moreover, they believed that materials used in art do not necessarily have to be permanent and long lasting. By upholding such a belief, these artists had widened the scope and depth of their artistic practice. However, in the Festival series, with its deep reference to historical and cultural contexts, Choong managed to produce objects representing the symbols, identities and skills of the various races in Malaysia, and incorporate them into large artworks able to manifest the thought, integrity and worldview of the peoples. This series is overwhelmingly uplifting and inspiring, and we also can use it as a springboard for contemplating ourselves.
At the same time, objects created here as works of art appear to provoke us into thinking that printmaking could be made not only on two-dimensional items like paper but also on three-dimensional things, as our ancestors have often demonstrated to us through their food creation in the kitchen. We need to understand that printmaking is the process of duplicating an object using blocks or moulds, sometimes referred to as matrices. This is the conventional notion of printmaking. The use of blocks or matrices is meant to create repeated duplicates of an artwork. By doing that, the same work can be sold at affordable prices to many people. We also need to realise that every form of art always changes with the progress of time, as commonly happen to the genres of sculpture and painting. As a result, artistic terms and definitions, particularly those related to the styles and forms of art, must also evolve accordingly. Nevertheless, we often see that printmaking is always defined in a narrow and limited sense, and frequently in relation only to its technical aspect. This happens because its definition is strictly determined by art dealers and scholars who lack knowledge in this field, and not by artists who have vast experience in this area. This indirectly hampers the progress of printmaking. Furthermore, it is often viewed with suspicion and distaste by many even though some print works are of excellent quality and thus should be highlighted like some paintings and sculptures.
Choong’s participation in an expedition to Endau Rompin in 1985 was in response to an environmental conservation campaign. The experience he gained from this expedition made him more conscious of his responsibility towards Nature. He discovered numerous fungi, or lingzhi, living on dead wood trunks in the process of decaying. He felt that these fungi reflected the concept of reincarnation as outlined in the philosophy and teachings of Buddhism. This new awareness of Nature became a source of inspiration for him to produce the works in the Rhythm of Growth IX Series (1990).
Once again Choong applied his expertise in exploiting paper pulp to compose objects in the shape of fungi. He used spraying gun to spray acrylic colours on handmade paper compositions. The colours look fairly similar to the natural colours of fungi. He then subtly added printed and carved elements on the surface of these fungus-like objects.
In addition, the surface of these fungi reveals the effects of pressing like those made using the technique of relief printing in the Festival series. These low relief or pressing textures produce beautiful visual effects. With their dimensions slightly larger than the size of actual fungi, the fungus-like compositions in the Rhythm of Growth IX Series (1990) appear so attractive that they immediately grab our attention when we look at them.
Choong has been using silkscreen printing technique on canvas since the Festival Series, especially in the works he created towards the end of this series. In the work titled Imej & Identiti (1996) from the Festival series, the patterns resembling ketupat and kelarai were composed mainly using silkscreen technique.
This work seems to present a discourse concerning local identity. Overlapping colours printed using silkscreen technique form dynamic and appealing patterns akin to kelarai. These colours are printed repeatedly and in a layered fashion until they develop into shapes and images suggestive of the packaging of local traditional cakes. They also evoke the beautiful rhythms and patterns of the traditional weaving art. Rendered in a minimal manner with brief brushstrokes and in dark colours, forms of ketupat, kuih changand angku aptly capture the theme underlying this Festival series.
Similarly with the Dragon Series that Choong has been producing since 2000. Works in this series are done in bright and vibrant colours applied using silkscreen technique. They also feature multiple layers of handwriting. Chinese phrases culled from the classical text of I-Ching function as structural and background elements of these works. The range of colours applied here is meant to symbolise dynamic force as well as the notion of journeying. This series presents something new, whereby the colours used to paint the dragons’ faces are immensely different from those typically found in traditional Chinese paintings of dragons. Furthermore, the interweaving of the dragon images and Chinese characters entails ambiguous spaces, thus conveying a sense of floating in air. However, the whole ambiance in these paintings is superbly controlled by a network of straight lines in colours of different nuances.
In the middle of 2005, Choong was diagnosed with colon cancer. After detecting early symptoms of the cancer when he was in Sri Lanka, he immediately returned to Kuala Lumpur. He had an operation in a hospital in Subang Jaya, and underwent a period of treatment until he was fully recovered. Despite his illness and weak physical condition, he was still determined to continue producing art. His works during this period are exceptionally remarkable and truly fantastic. He has to not only create art and deal with images on his canvas, but also, at the same time, learn how to improve his health. He saw that making art and healing his body were equally important. He then decided to take up Taiji and Qigong exercises to restore his physical well-being so that he could continue his artistic pursuits.
The Kung Fu series underscores Choong’s attempt at healing himself and expanding his creativity. Postures and movements of Taiji and Qigong have now been adopted as a new theme and key elements in his latest compositions. He translated his experience with Kung Fu, which he practiced diligently on a weekly basis, into interesting works of art.
Once again Choong adopted the approach rather similar to the one he applied in the Dragon Series. He used silkscreen printing technique to create the background. Texts derived from Taiji and Qigong manuals were printed in an overlapping manner and in monochromatic colours. Some texts were manually written on top of the printed ones. By doing that, the background looks more fluid and less stiff. Moreover, due to the vague rendering of the monochromatic colours, the images and subjects seem to blend seamlessly with the background. Swathes of colour were delicately interwoven to form patterns resembling kelarai like those on mengkuang mats, which the artist knows very well.
By analysing the whole body of Choong’s work we come to realise that he is an artist who has managed to choose and apply proper techniques and methods in making his art. Although the materials he uses are normally taken out of their original contexts, the artist has shown a high level of skill in incorporating and integrating them into his artworks.
Interestingly, due to his outstanding expertise and talent he has managed to embark on a series of unique artistic journeys, and to arrive at new insights into art which allow him to reach a new height of stylistic accomplishment. He approaches these journeys and the experiences he has gained through them with an open and critical thinking process. Surely, this process is founded on his large corpus of knowledge and reservoir of spiritual strength that he has attained over the years. His constant use of diverse artistic methods, media and materials stands as a landmark, a high point, in his artistic career. Choong believes that the use of a broad range of media and the application of highly polished art-making techniques and processes are two factors that can crucially affect the overall quality of both the appearance and content of an artwork. As a vastly knowledgeable and experienced artist, he has the capability to exploit various techniques and processes in a serious, thorough and constructive manner. This is important not only for him but also for the development of Malaysian Art in general.
Essay taken from the book of Choong Kam Kow Retrospective, Cross Culture- Trans Era. Published by National Visual Arts Gallery.