Octogenarian artist Cheong Laitong’s refusal to describe his work has paradoxically proved a blessing.
Even at 82, Cheong Laitong, as an artist, is still hard to pin down.
His paintings have no names and his exhibitions come with nondescript umbrella titles (like “Selected Works/New Works”).
No markers, no labels. Just paintings which became larger and larger through the years and with the inherent elements of colours, forms, tones, lines, composition changing rapidly. If anything, these works are identifiable with Cheong’s strokes.
His works from the 1960s – actually the starting point is 1952, when the Wednesday Art Group (WAG) was formed by Peter Harris, the self-styled superintendent of art of Malaya – are mostly inspired by nature.
Cheong’s canvas is also notorious for the singular absence of the human form, which is comparable to techniques of Chinese brush paintings.
Art enthusiasts at Cheong’s recent Expression Of 60 Years - An Exhibition Of Selected Works From 1960 to 2013 exhibition at White Box, Publika in Kuala Lumpur must have noted – with a little curiosity – how his works have moved seamlessly and inexorably, instead of evolving, over six decades. Conversations revolved around how this works have remained the same despite the changes at certain points in time, and how they are really different despite a homogenous veneer.
Cheong’s exhibition was a celebration which he obviously savoured like in an Oscar night with several old faces from the past turning up on the opening day on May 24. The exhibition was organised by the NN Gallery, Cheong’s sole agent/promoter since 1998.
Expression Of 60 Years marked their 10th collaboration and this was also Cheong’s 16th solo since his first at Balai Ampang, Kuala Lumpur in 1966.
This recent show was a timeless capsule which revisited Cheong’s story when he was a WAG wunderkind with its two other biggest stars – Dzulkifli Buyong (1948-2004) and Patrick Ng Kah Onn (1932-1989).
While the Expression Of 60 Years format was somewhat similar to his Sept 2004 exhibition, A Selection Of Personal Favourites From His Private Collection, it had a different set of works while filling in the gap of the intervening 10 years. His “latest” piece in this exhibition was tagged in 2012.
Apart from WAG, Cheong has another major ranking in the art scene here. He was one of the magnificent seven in the GRUP exhibition in 1967, which marked the onslaught of Abstract Expressionism into the local art circles. Thirty years later, the legacy of this show was celebrated at RE-GRUP at the now-defunct Valentine Willie Fine Arts in 1997.
Cheong has been associated with this stream of art since 1957 (as can be seen in an extant abstract on Batu Caves).
The other GRUP artists were Datuk Ibrahim Hussein, Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal, Yeoh Jin Leng, Abdul Latiff Mohidin, Jolly Koh and Anthony Lau.
Cheong’s journey in art has been a long struggle. Born in Guangdong in China in 1932 (actually he had confided to me in a July 2007 interview that he was born three years later), Cheong joined his father’s textile-shop business (in Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur) in Malaya during the Chinese exodus in the second Sino-Japanese War (1932-1945). The death of his father in 1943 left him with a heavy financial burden and his priorities became “family first, stable career.” In hindsight, he doubts if he could had a comfortable life if he had opted for a career in art in his early years.
Cheong, of course, is best known for his two Venetian mosaic glass murals at Muzium Negara (1962), apart from two others for the Sultan of Selangor’s Istana Alam Shah (1958) and the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Building in Kuala Lumpur (1962).
His early flourish was also capped by the first prize (oil/acrylic section) twice in the prestigious Salon Malaysia in 1969 and 1979, the second time jointly with Datuk Sharifah Fatimah Zubir.
He was also selected for the Malaysian art travelling exhibitions to Europe (1965-67), Australia/New Zealand (1970), London (1978), and the India Triennial in 1968 and 1978.
Cheong excelled in the 1960s with broad calligraphic brushstrokes, working with oil on board. The latter part of his art life (after a 33-year hiatus to concentrate on his advertising job) saw the artist opting for muted, broken or thin lines. He also went for streaks, and then blobs, splatters and flicks, the smaller balls like spiky seeds.
His later works with the drips and splashes
look Jackson Pollock in nature, but are actually more Zhang Da-Qian-inspired with his reputed “splash ink.”
Unlike traditional Chinese brush scrolls, Cheong prefers the horizontal format, often with the forms bunched in the centre (in the 1970s and 1980s), but from the 2000s, his works capture a broader expanse with an all-encompassing feel.
In the 1970s came his truncated parallel lines with wide spacing and with the backdrop divided into two to four parts of different colours. In the 1980s, he latched on to nipah-palm as totems and a kind of patterning, and in the next decade, the works turned into spiky thickets with black outlines (with some works simulating batik designs).
His recent works are bigger with references to Chinese mountain ranges (Huangshan), while a giant lotus with the sound clouds and hemp-like choppy strokes made an appearance at his Our Beautiful Earth solo show in 2011.
Cheong once told me: “I like to be inside a painting. When you walk into a painting, you have the feeling of being with the painting, and vibrating with the painting.”
He also revealed, through the years, that he has been a night owl working late at night (thus the nocturnal aura in most of his works). Also he paints with soothing classical music playing in the background.
Cheong also lamented what he calls his “lost 33 years” (apart from his missing 105 paintings consigned to the then Samat Gallery in KL) when he whole-heartedly devoted his career as the creative director at Rothmans Malaysia (1963-92) and then regional creative director at Rothmans International (1992-96). Earlier on, he worked in the projection room at Madras Cinema in Kuala Lumpur, and then as a draughtsman in the Malayan Film Unit’s animation department.
Apart from the informal instructions at WAG, Cheong was further exposed to art when he won a United States Information Service (USIS) scholarship (a four-month summer course at the Skowhegan School of Art in Maine) in 1960. In 1961, he studied part-time at the London College of Communications Central Art School.
When it comes to art, Cheong neither sketches nor resorts to photography (for reference), except once when working on his banyan tree strangler fig painting dated 1995 (135cm x 175cm), which incorporated silkscreen techniques. This piece was shown at the Voices Of Nature exhibition that year.
Just like the fig, Cheong has proven to be