Wong Keen

The Tender Hooks of Memory


artcommune is pleased to present Wong Keen’s new solo exhibition, The Tender Hooks of Memory, which opens on Friday, 14 January 2022. One of Singapore’s leading painters, New York-trained artist Wong Keen has long captivated audience with his stylised and ever-evolving pictorial exploration that veers between the abstract and the figurative. From series to series, whether venturing anew or revisiting familiar techniques and imagery, Wong Keen’s relentless pursuit of compositional innovation, together with the enigmatic quality of his language, has given rise to a unique body of work that defies traditions and categorisation.


Wong Keen was born in Singapore in 1942, to parents who were diasporic Chinese educators. His mother, Chu Hen’ai was a devoted calligrapher who practised on a daily basis. As a child he studied drawing and painting under pioneer artists Liu Kang and Chen Wen Hsi and grew to be a highly acclaimed young painter in the early Singapore art scene. In 1961, Wong Keen held his first solo exhibition and departed for America to study at the Art Students League of New York, becoming the first Singaporean and among the earliest of Chinese artists to venture into the post-war American art scene. Having spent over fifty years in the US, Wong Keen registered a plethora of artistic influences that melded the fast-paced American art scene. His prolific oeuvre, which encompasses oil, ink, acrylic, collage, and mixed media since the 1960s to the present, is a powerful embodiment of the delicate expressivity of Chinese ink wash aesthetics and Western inventive approach towards form and colour.


The exhibition features 15 selected works on canvas and paper that were produced from the early 90s to the present. Though created in different periods of his career, many of the works on view centre on the themes of memory, journey and identity. The First Brick (2021, Acrylic on canvas, 152 x 428 cm) is a large-scale diptych featuring Samsui women labouring at a construction site, a sight familiar to Wong Keen in his early days of growing up in Old Singapore. The scene is a coalescence of his personal memories with studies of historical photographs of these women figures. As an artist Wong Keen is principally concerned with finding forms and giving forms through the materiality and gesture of paint. The work embodies the spirit of New York School painting with its big, immense format, and is suffused with abstract expressionist and colour field techniques. Amidst the vibrant atmosphere is a palpable sense of resigned labour and hardship, with the worn-out bodies characterised by a placid dignity. More than just an homage to the Samsui women, the painting reveals the distortion and reframing of a personal memory, and along with it the bittersweet acquiescence to the changing times and values.


Also on view are works from Wong Keen’s Caesura collage series (1993-94), which essentially plays on the juxtapositions of non-related ideas and images to draw new associative meanings. ‘Caesura’ means a pause or rhetorical break in a line of poetry and alludes to his concept and execution for the series. The compositions are on rice paper and usually combine his mother’s Chinese calligraphy – in whole or deconstructed – with his own abstract drawings and painted cutouts. At times he also incorporates images or transfer prints from Western magazines or old Chinese manuscripts. This deliberate erasure of legible content and destabilisation of different cultural signs, followed by a reconstruction that does not adhere to any stable context of meanings, draws on destruction as a necessary process for rebirth. The Caesura collage relates a poetry of its own and evokes the lyrical arbitrariness that informs Wong Keen’s own sense of identity, which is a confluence of East-West roots and values.


In conjunction with

Singapore Art Week 2022


artcommune gallery

Singapore

14 – 30 January 2022

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The First Brick

2021

Acrylic on canvas

152 x 428 cm (2 panels)

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The First Brick

2021

Acrylic on canvas

152 x 428 cm (2 panels)

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Ready to Work

2021

Acrylic on canvas

101 x 83 cm

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Ready to Work

2021

Acrylic on canvas

101 x 83 cm

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Sisters

2021

Oil on canvas

122 x 107 cm

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Sisters

2021

Oil on canvas

122 x 107 cm

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The Lush of Life II

2019

Mixed media on paper (Collage)

117 x 110 cm

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The Lush of Life II

2019

Mixed media on paper (Collage)

117 x 110 cm

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The Lush of Life I

2019

Mixed media on paper (Collage)

117 x 110 cm

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The Lush of Life I

2019

Mixed media on paper (Collage)

117 x 110 cm

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Caesura

1994

Mixed media (Collage)

53 x 36 cm

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Caesura

1994

Mixed media (Collage)

53 x 36 cm

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Caesura

1994

Mixed media (Collage)

59 x 42 cm

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Caesura

1994

Mixed media (Collage)

59 x 42 cm

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Corner

2007

Acrylic on paper

52 x 36 cm

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Corner

2007

Acrylic on paper

52 x 36 cm

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Untitled

1997

Oil on canvas 

122 x 162 cm

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Untitled

1997

Oil on canvas 

122 x 162 cm

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