The Enduring Heart in Nanyang Ink Painting @ NVAG

Ooi Kok Chuen once described Sylvia Lee Goh’s paintings as “…a world unto its own; a snug, safe space filled with fond memories and her favourite things;” At this retrospective, her works emit a luminous, dreamlike quality that frighten more often than delight. Loneliness characterise pictures painted with staged ornamental details, often showing the cheongsam-wearing artist surrounded by well-tended flora, and/or resplendent Nyonya ceramic ware, and/or sumptuous Nyonya kueh. Adding onto the disarrayed perspective illustrated, the paintings' backgrounds are always dark, where objects are lit in the artist’s mind. As the artist tirelessly elaborates upon her eccentric worldview, I realise that self-indulgent paintings used to intrigue myself, but not anymore.

Sylvia Lee Goh - After A Thousand Years (1987)

Upstairs, ink paintings by Cheah Thien Soong also touch a cynical nerve with this visitor, as I ponder upon a general disinterest in Chinese paintings. The Nanyang style, as described in the local canon, depicts local landscapes with painting approaches derived from Chinese and European traditions. A NAFA graduate, Thien Soong paints bamboo, birds, lotuses, and trees, the resulting output supposedly invoking Buddhist mantras and philosophical idioms. Dense and tiny calligraphy populate most works, where natural scenes present a serene fantasy that function as empty symbols in this empirical world. Having visited many Chinese museums, ink paintings have never grabbed my attention, despite the attraction of other more crafty artifacts. This absolute lack of appreciation deserves a deeper self-interrogation, blank spaces and all.

Cheah Thien Soong - Borderless 无限 (2002)