Snippets: Singapore, Jan 2014

Visiting its National Museum as part of the Singapore Biennale circuit, "A Changed World: Singapore Art 1950s-1970" presents significant works that attempt to narrate the island state's national history and modernisation efforts. Western-trained Nanyang artists are well-represented, but what took my breathe away were the early woodblock prints by Lim Yew Kuan and Tan Tee Chie. 'After the Fire' by the former projects an apocalyptic scene of a burnt neighbourhood, while the latter's 'Yellow Danger' is daring and potent in its political message. Patriotic fervour describes Chua Mia Tee's realistic oil paintings, equally apparent in pictures of poem recitals or factory workers. Depictions of a developing nation and its populace, are exhibited alongside many river/boat scenes, one particularly attractive example being a deftly executed Chinese ink and watercolour by Chen Wen Hsi.

Tan Tee Chie - Yellow Danger (1954)

Wen Hsi's 'Abstract Cranes' reveals a keen understanding of Western abstraction, a trait also detected in Cheong Soo Pieng, whose metal 'Construction' is drastically different from the landscapes done in other painterly mediums. Wrapping up the show is Eng Tow's wooden press and imprint, its simple geometric pattern also visually engaging at first sight. Superb works by Malaysian artists Latiff Mohidin, Chia Yu Chian, and Khoo Sui Hoe, are also featured, basking in a well-lit environment that immediately puts our National Visual Arts Gallery to shame. It is unclear how these works fit into the exhibition context, but one observation is clear - the most out of place piece is also the most original artwork on display. Chuah Thean Teng's well-preserved 'Malay Women Grating Coconut' stuns the viewer with a primitive yet refined aesthetic, executed with traditional Malay craft in beautiful colours.

Chuah Thean Teng - Malay Women Grating Coconut

Before visiting Art Stage Singapore, a stopover at Artspace @ Helutrans warehouse is required to appreciate Nadiah Bamadhaj's "Poised for Degradation", a series of eight works done in her inimitable style of charcoal on paper collage. The sheer size of these exhibits command instant attention, especially the tall 'Gerobak Agung' and grotesque 'Tumbal'. Before reading the artist statement, one immediately discerns the layered projections of a personal subject, architectural forms, Javanese mythology, and social concerns. Amalgamation of functional structures with noble embellishments display a stunning juxtaposition, an artistic expression of the "spatial particularities" in the artist's adopted homeland. As Nadiah observes, "The relations of power between the Kraton [Yogyakarta's center] and its surrounding inhabitants are reciprocal. The proximity of regal poise to a degree of visible infrastructural and financial degradation is inevitable."

Nadiah Bamadhaj - Kandang Ningrat (2013)

Monumentality dampens the impact of these sensitive works, where Nadiah's fine technique occasionally gets lost in the big picture(s). Among the four portraits, 'Null and Void' stand out for its poignant rendering of two old women, their dull expressions magnified in monochromatic hues. Across at Galerie Steph, size also diminishes the aesthetic value of charcoal drawings by Zhang Chun Hong 张春红. 'Fall' draws the viewer in with a luscious depiction of flowing hair, the paper scroll unravelling onto the floor to form the base of a waterfall. More attractive are the smaller works of ink and watercolour on rice paper, the "Water" series illustrating ocean waves of different magnitudes. Unbroken sinuous lines create a perfection leading to serenity, its subtle gradation of colours uplifting a sophisticated drawing to a mesmerising engagement. These two outstanding exhibitions, more than made up for the long taxi wait.

Zhang Chun Hong - Water #2 (2012)