New paintings and early collages by Wong Keen – 

    18 May – 12 July 2024

    Opens 18 May, 12pm – 6pm. Open House on 25 May and 1 June, 1pm – 5pm.

    Other visits by appointment only. Please email admin@theculturestory.co

    Foreword by Ning Chong:

    The last time The Culture Story exhibited Wong Keen’s works with us, it was a cosy exhibition; a selection of paper works which served as a preview to his watershed exhibition “Flesh Matters” held at Artspace@ Helutrans in July 2018. In a blink of an eye, it has been six years, our relationship with Wong Keen has matured, we treat him like an extended member of the family, my father would regularly check in on him and often I would send him pictures of my children’s drawings.

    It does not feel so long ago, but if we cast our memories back to the Covid pandemic; it brought on a new reality, where time seemed elastic, blending and blurring into a continuous stream. On one hand, the pandemic was a blessing in disguise as lock-down allowed me to focus and spend time on my loved ones and having children. However not being able to work and socialise gave me a lot of anxiety and worry, I questioned whether the current modus operandi was sustainable and how should we pivot to a new reality? Then, abruptly I also experienced immense loss and sadness, when I lost my mother to aggressive cancer. Having a new baby and losing your mother within a couple of months of each other was a rollercoaster ride to say the least, I would oscillate from deep feelings of loss and regret to unwavering love and pure happiness caring for a new born child.

    After I read Wong Keen’s statements (below), I felt compelled to share my own experiences of loneliness, anxiety, depression, struggle and loss. In spite of his age and experiencing such complex negative emotions, I am always impressed by Wong’s effort to show up every day for himself, experimenting and painting, to find ways to express his feelings, emotions and thoughts. As a master colourist, my father and I appreciate seeing Wong’s application of colours swirl and dance on paper and canvas. His painterly gestures are expressive and generous, I would often recall the meat-tone palette of Francis Bacon and single-line silhouettes of the female form by Willem De Kooning.

    Wong Keen is a prolific artist, and this is a small careful selection of new works from his Singapore studio. Besides showcasing recent works which depict burger, nudes and abstraction, we are thrilled to present circa-1968 collages which have been part of the artist’s estate, stored in his home in California.

    Some people might be surprised to learn that Wong started with Chinese ink on rice paper in his early practice, he was a young and loyal student of Chen Wen Hsi who used to teach at Chinese High School where Wong was a student. I have a fondness for Wong’s early works, because it offers a window to a young artist mind; how one tries to create tension, harmony, conversation by juxtaposing ink media with other types of (found) media. This is the first time Wong has brought these collages back to Singapore and we can’t wait to share them with the public.

    – Ning Chong

    Wong Keen, on the new paintings (2023):

    It’s all about painting. 

    For me, the starting point of a new series is always to build on my existing knowledge and exploration of form and colour, and I endeavour to create new images that have never been seen before. 

    I started to work on this series during a period last year when I was feeling depressed. I think not just for me, but many artists as well, pouring yourself into art is a form of release. So the result is this spontaneous and direct outpour of energy and emotions in various forms and expressions.

    The working process is always mind-bending – you find yourself in a dialogue and also a battle with the composition, but you come through at the end with a certain sense of freedom and satisfaction. At times when the spur of creativity comes and you find your momentum, you have to seize it. Working on paper allows you to seize and channel this immediacy. 

    Wong Keen on the early collages (1968~):

    These have never been shown before, in fact they were stored away for a very long time. They characterised a period in my youth and my early experimentation with abstract inks; collages with discarded or found paper materials.

    This series was also created during a period of depression. After finishing my scholarship program in London, I was no longer a student and when I returned to NY to figure out my path I felt really lost. I was almost penniless and only had enough to get by with rent, so I couldn’t afford new canvas or even paints. 

    Often sleepless at night, I had this frenetic energy to create, and took out whatever materials I had at the time in my studio. In a way this series was a continued exploration of the abstract inks (1962-65) that I did during my earlier years in NY, so you can sense a certain parallel mood and aesthetic, but also I was searching for a different expression to play with the subtleties of ink aesthetic.  

    Many are collage works, I incorporated discarded rice paper (some were remains or scraps from earlier compositions), and found magazine prints that I felt would give interesting textures, contrasts and relationships to the elements. 

    Creating and experimenting with these small-scale expressions was akin to a form of meditation for me. The habits that I cultivated in this early period also inform the techniques for my later works, especially with mixed media collage involving discarded or torn remains of rice paper.