When he was a young man in 1965, visual artist and academician Dr Choong Kam Kow went to New York to study Fine Arts under a Fulbright Scholarship. Upon arriving, he recalled feeling a lot of culture shock. For one thing, the American buildings were nothing like the buildings he was accustomed to seeing back home.
“In Malaysia, or Asia, our houses were mostly kampung houses at the time, built with more naturalistic styles. They had very little geometric shapes in their designs. When I was in New York, they had all these 'boxy' buildings everywhere. I needed a few months to adjust to this!” says Choong, 85, with a laugh.
The Ipoh-born Choong is in good spirits during a recent interview at his home studio in Petaling Jaya. It has been 10 years since he retired as president and CEO of the Malaysian Institute of Art in Kuala Lumpur.
He also spent 20 years lecturing and heading the Fine Art Department, Faculty of Art and Design, UiTM between 1969 and 1989.
“The contrast of the situation and this geometric man-made environment seemed to reflect the modern Western world more than our Asian society. So I tried adjusting to it, but the contrast kept pouncing on me. So I decided to find ways and means to express my reaction to such environments,” he explains.
This initial fascination with geometric shapes would end up, appropriately, shaping a big part of Choong’s artistic career. The artist began to move towards styles like geometric abstraction and minimalism, with his works combining Western and Eastern styles.
“My canvases are designed to create a new reality, not a pictorial reality”.
“In my work, I have always dealt with the real (real shape of canvas) and the unreal (illusion) … form and space are revealed rather than suggested through the control of the physical condition. The idea of cutting actual squares out of the canvas is an attempt to arouse the awareness of the space (existing) yet normally covered by the painting,” says Choong.
With his particular brand of abstract language, he played a part in the seminal New Scene movement in Kuala Lumpur in the 1970s alongside the conceptualism championed by Redza Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa.
Choong, a Taiwan-trained artist, has created countless works, all encapsulated in 15 series over the last 60 years.
Also, a former Dean of Fine Arts Studies at LaSalle College of the Arts, Singapore (1989-1994); and the Head of the Art Department at the United Nations International School, New York (1967-1968), Choong has been a global observer and active participant when it comes to art.
His stints in New York in the 1960s and early 1980s have informed and re-inspired his conceptual works respectively. Choong is considered a pioneering figure in the historical development of Malaysian art.
In late 2014, he was featured in a career retrospective exhibition (Cross Culture. Trans Era Of Dr Choong Kam Kau), featuring nearly 270 works, at the National Art Gallery in KL, and two years later, had another retrospective exhibition in Guangzhou, China.
Currently, he is enjoying another milestone with a solo exhibit in Singapore for the first time.
Gajah Gallery's The Shape Of Things: Conceptual Configurations features 18 works, including a few historic canvases, handpicked by Choong.
It contains a range of works from the late 1960s to the early 1980s across three seminal series: the New York series (1960s/70s), the SEA Thru series (1971-75), and his signature Shaped Canvas series (1969-1972). These works are being shown alongside new, contemporary pieces which expand on and adapt these ideas for the present day.
Choong admits he didn’t have any plans to hold a solo exhibition this year. He has, however, been active working on new art and he was part of the M ... Reinterpreting Minimalism exhibit at Segaris Art Centre in KL last month.
This show across the causeway took shape after a meeting with Singapore Art Museum curator Louis Ho, whom he was working with on another project. The invitation was something Choong never expected.
“That came about as a surprise! The time for it for it was rather short. Usually, you have one or two years to plan an exhibition, now we had only a few months. But I welcomed the challenge. They said I could also use my current works. But as for some of the older ones, they needed to be touched up, some are older than my children!” says Choong candidly.
“I hope they will enjoy seeing my works. For me, exhibitions are all about sharing your views with people.”
The exhibition renewed his creative energy, he reveals. He put together a compact survey of his career, featuring many of his shape-themed works. This includes one of his favourite pieces The Spirit Of Stripes (1974), from the SEA Thru series.
“The work is interactive, and viewer friendly! When you peep into the holes in the panels, the words say ‘Hello’. And the panels are in the colours of the Malaysian flag. It’s a tribute to Malaysian hospitality,” says the artist.
By the way, the reason the series is called SEA Thru is because he developed this concept when he was living in SEA Park, Petaling Jaya in the early 1970s.
The oldest work is Sidewalk Performer (1968), one of Choong’s pioneer pieces, done when he was merging geometric and non-geometric shapes. Other works include Mighty Projection (1971) and Volume In Flight (1974) from the Shaped Canvas series.
These works are notable for their irregular shapes, reflecting a break away from conventional square and rectangle formats.
Choong’s new series, Co-Exist continues his style of bringing disparate and different elements together. These four works feature geometric shapes both traditional (old Chinese seals and bamboo basket weavings) and modern (QR codes), both combined in the same artwork.
“We’re living in a digital age right now, whether you like it or not. There are a lot of elements that contrast in our lives: geometric and organic, yin and yang, positive and negative.
"But they all also have to co-exist in any society, they are also inter-complimentary. And the world needs that kind of spirit, the spirit to accept differences,” says Choong.
A gallery visitor can scan the QR codes on his artwork and you will be directed to Choong’s website.
Choong mentions that he is still working on the Co-Exist series, and hopes to create about 20 to 30 of them, which he aims to exhibit in a solo show next year.
“There will be more. I’ve done up to 11 pieces already, and two have been shown before. I will continue working on them until I feel my wishes are fulfilled, and then only move to another series,” concludes Choong.
The Shape Of Things: Conceptual Configurations By Dr Choong Kam Kow is showing at Gajah Gallery, Keppel Road, Tanjong Pagar Distripark in Singapore till Nov 10. More info: www.gajah gallery.com. Facebook: Gajah Gallery.