Yeoh Choo Kuan adds dark twist to traditional Chinese landscape art

  • Arts
  • Wednesday, 23 Jan 2019

A visitor walks past Yeoh’s wall-sized work called 'In The Beginning It Was Only Black Or White' (2018) at Richard Koh Fine Art in KL. Photo: The Star/Shaari Chemat

This could be a story of how he drew inspiration from the natural beauty of the local scenery, of how he gazed upon a majestic mountain and a stream, and captured the essence of Shan Shui (mountain and stream) in traditional Chinese paintings.

But this is not that story.

Yeoh Choo Kuan does not even have any formal training in Chinese brush painting.

Instead his journey through the landscapes of his solo exhibition Streaming Mountain begins in the fiery depths of hell, where violent acts of dismemberment, flagellation, and being boiled, ground into a pulp, and pulverised within an inch of your life, serve as inspiration.

As a child, a highlight of frequent visits to the neighbourhood Chinese temple in Kota Baru, Kelantan were the Diyu illustrations, where he lost himself in the artistic depictions of the realm of the dead in Chinese mythology.

Yeoh would pore, wide-eyed, over these books with their inked depictions of what goes on in the maze of levels and chambers, where souls go to after death to atone for the sins committed during their time on earth.

Yeoh's Ready To Off (acrylic and structuring paste on linen, 2018). Photo: Richard Koh Fine Art

These gruesome depictions were an endless source of fascination to the young Yeoh, and as it turns out, came to be inspiration for his art practice.

“The torture, blood and gore in those illustrations really captivated me as a kid. I did feel a pang of guilt at revelling in such deviant fantasies when I was really supposed to be reflecting on the importance of good behaviour and doing good deeds, but in a way, that was really my first introduction to landscape art of sorts,” says Yeoh, 30.

Streaming Mountain at Richard Koh Fine Art in KL comprises a selection of pieces from Yeoh’s new body of work, including a large-scale work measuring almost 10m across, which comprises multiple panels.

'I have formal training in Western art but I have wanted to do something with Chinese landscape for a while now,' says Yeoh. Photo: The Star/Chan Tak Kong

It is Yeoh’s third solo exhibition with the gallery, where he takes his self-coined “fleshing abstraction” style to new heights.

This series boasts the heavily layered and textured strokes we saw in Live Leak (2017) and In The Flesh (2014), both solo exhibitions held at the gallery, but adds dripping, splashing and free flowing rivulets of paint as a prominent feature of the work.

“The addition of dripping paint from a height and watching that paint run through the textured surface, opened up a new dimension of my ‘fleshing abstraction’ method,” he says.

Working on this body of work came with “many different kinds of pleasures” for Yeoh, from the violent motions behind the textured surface, to watching paint fall and hit the surface, and observing how it flows.

“To put it intimately, the textures in these works are like old wounds that have hardened over time. Watching the paint drip and flow conjures up the imagery of blood trickling, and a caressing of old wounds,” muses the Kuala Lumpur-based artist muses.

Mind Trick (acrylic and structuring paste on linen, 2018). Photo: Richard Koh Fine Art

It starts the same way as his earlier work, where he “builds layers and then torture and abuse it”. “One thing that it all has in common with each other is the element of violence. There is scratching, cutting and stabbing and I hope these manifestation of violent expression comes through in my work,” he adds.

Interestingly, he has managed to coax his fleshing abstraction style into something that hints at mountain ranges and a natural landscape series, with compositions that feels sufficiently familiar even as they stray from the rigid conventions of the traditional Chinese landscape art medium.

So traditional Chinese landscape it is not, but calling it an updated version sounds plausible.

“I have formal training in Western art but I have wanted to do something with Chinese landscape for a while now. Looking at it a little closer, it struck me that my most instinctual association with Chinese painting comes from those illustrations of hell I enjoyed as a child. Streaming Mountain incorporates some elements from the Chinese art form into my work; at first glance it even has a similar feeling of peace and sublimity you see in traditional Chinese landscape paintings,” he says.

Yeoh's largest piece from his Streaming Mountain series, measuring 20m, is on display in Singapore. Photo: Yeoh Choo Kuan

However, it is clear that Yeoh is not bound by its rules and structure, and he points out that it would be interesting to discuss his take on things within the context of Chinese art.

Italian art critic Naima Morelli writes in an essay published in the Streaming Mountain exhibition catalogue that suggests Yeoh is determined to contribute to the discussion on traditional Chinese art.

“As a third generation Malaysian Chinese artist, he silently shares his questions with the viewers: What is our contemporary stance in relation to this traditional art form? Is there anything I could inherit from the Chinese art developments since the 1970s? Can I model it according to my local context? How can we enrich and connect to the Chinese art discourse?” writes Morelli.

No surprise then, that Streaming Mountain is a deeply personal project to Yeoh, a fusing of memories, emotions and his art-making adventures that comes together nicely as a whole.

Yeoh is also having a solo installation showcase at Blk 22 Lock Road, 01-35 Gillman Barracks in Singapore, where 20m canvas piece will be available for public viewing till Jan 27. This is the largest piece from his Streaming Mountain series.

Streaming Mountain is on at Richard Koh Fine, 229 Jalan Maarof, Bangsar in Kuala Lumpur till Jan 30. Open: Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 7pm. Call 03-2095 3300 or visit

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