A Mountain is Much More than a Mountain


Absorbing atmospheres to regurgitate art, James Sum paints calm and tranquility onto canvas.


James Sum’s mountainscapes can be split into more traditional Chinese inkand-(limited) colour constructs, and more dialectical yet lyrical palettes of oil; sometimes, his works display a nuanced promiscuity between the two.

Sum’s Chinese ink does not have the ascetic abandon of Shitao, nor the rarefied mystique of Huang Binhong, but sprawls across a more chaotic topography of cultured terrain dotted by hints of water.

The hues are more intense, and areas more visibly delineated, creating an ambiguous juxtaposition.

The oil works, meanwhile, are swathes of colour adumbrations, of coarse surface tensions and ululations; they contain a play of rhythm and contours, but are hardly luscious. The mountains are obdurate and unyielding, even as the surfaces are truncated and honed by the attrition of wind and sand.

If height seems compressed or even flattened, it is because Sum’s approach is a top-down, all-around application, with metallic chipping and scumbling through the clinical use of a palette knife. Streams and doses of turpentine intoxicate the staple colours, with darkened areas demarcated with a heavy hand.

By dint of medium, Sum’s ink oeuvre touches on the ethereal and the ephemeral, while the oils are visual aromas of chromatic hues that maintain a phlegmatic air.

Despite the different media and approaches between the intuitive and deliberate, the thrust is the same – whether the works are contemplative or varied, specific or panoramic, spiritual or physical, Sum creates oases of calm and tranquillity.

Fruitful Pear Trees – Pears (68 x 67 cm, Sotheby's 2005), 1984.

Observers of Sum’s dualism often ask which is the better of the two. The answer is neither, and both. His works are re-imagings and re-imaginations of a nebulous place in time “recollected in tranquillity,” or in enforced production at a given time. At the point of creation, the operational dictates are the colours, dependent on the emotional gamut, forms, pace, intensity, direction and sometimes, the detour.  

The inspirational spark may be Huangshan, even if Sum’s actual compositions do not display its exact physical characteristics or attributes – the crevasses, lofty craggy conical summits, and so on – but rather vestigial “feelings” of abbreviated memory. Perhaps the title of his first Taiwan solo forms a more apt metaphor: “Flowing Mirages.”

As to why Penang-born Sum chose mountains as his forte, the reason could well be gleaned from what he told curatorwriter and Penang State Art Gallery (PSAG) trustee Lee Khai. Sum, born in the lunar year of the monkey, was told by his mother the story of Monkey King Sun Wukong being “imprisoned” under a mountain for 500 years.

Sum is hardly a reclusive plein air type soaking in a scene and capturing its picturesque vista for posterity. His records are what registers in his mind and heart, to be subconsciously called into service at a later date.

Being Chinese, an affinity to the Daoist view of nature would probably be inescapable, despite the differing worldviews afforded by his faith, Christianity, or his surroundings, having lived in the West since the age of 21. After all, it was being given the premier Chinese

painting tome The Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden by his grandfather that set him on his artistic journey in the first place. Or it could have been winning the second prize in a Penang art competition in 1959.  

Traces of the lush atmospheric dramatics of Zao Wou-Ki – one of the two Frenchtrained/based China artists he admires, along with Chu Teh-Chun – can be discerned in his works. Along the way, Sum also had had brief mentorships with pioneering artists Lee Cheng Yong and Khor Ean Ghee at Chung Ling High School, Yeo Hoe Koon at Han Chiang High School (although Sum was taking up Commerce there), and Szeto Lap in Paris.

Sum received most of his formal art education at the Brixton School of Building (later merged into London South Bank University) from 1968 to 1971, apart from stints at the National College of Art and Design (1965), Sir John Cass School of Art (1966-68), and later drawing courses in the Prince of Wales Drawing Studio (2002).  

Entrance – Penglai Ge, Shangong Province (Sotheby's 2005), 1994.

Since 1979, Sum has had a total of 17 solo exhibitions in London, Penang, KL, Beijing, and as mentioned above, Taipei, before the retrospective accorded by the Penang State Art Gallery this year, a full 20 years after his homecoming solo at the PSAG in 1996.

After having built a career in art for some seven years, Sum spent a large part of his working life in London in business, mainly as a restaurateur. In 1982 he set up the Penang Satay House, and Makan Minum in 2010, until he quit the business altogether in 2014. In between, his other outlets included Satay Baba (1997-2000) and Papaya (20002003). The food business is demanding; while the money is good, one has to slave for it. At one time, he was even running three outlets at one go.

Sum also had a short stint in the antiques business, running an art gallery, and even a dojo teaching Wing Chun martial arts and Shotoku Karate (being a 3rd Dan blackbelt), with shares in a marble-and-granite business in China (1990-93). These ventures took up a lot of Sum’s time, leaving precious little to paint – although he created pieces to fill the walls of his restaurants, which were for sale.

Sum’s art career took a shot in the arm in the mid-1990s, when his works were accepted for the Royal Academy of Arts summer exhibitions in London (1994-95) and the Royal Watercolour Society 1995 show, in which he received the Outstanding New Entrant Award, or the Catto Award for his Early Morning.

Of the 171 works and items, including painting paraphernalia, on show at the James Sum Retrospective, the earliest is a 1960 oil on canvas, The End Is Coming – signed with “Hin,” after his given name, Kin Hing. The dramatic nocturnal scene, presumably of church-goers with a centrifugal force hovering above, marks his rebelliousness, and his conversion to Christianity, much against his mother’s wishes.

But what is perhaps most perplexing is how, at the age of 16, Sum could afford oil and canvas for the painting. Also on show, with wide gaps in between, are pencil sketches of family members (1970-88) and studio nudes (1966-67, 1970, 1996-2001) apart from watercolours (1966-2010).  

Sum’s concentration on art in later life has begun to pay dividends. In 2010 he was commissioned to do a mural piece for the Ritz Garden Hotel in Ipoh. The result was a 365.7cm x 609.3cm oil on canvas mural called Dawn At Valley, based on the Kinta Valley landscape. In 2011 he received the World Chinese Entrepreneur Award in Beijing – where he was honoured with a postagestamp portrait – and in 2014 was awarded the title of Overseas Chinese Model.

The James Sum Retrospective (Penang State Art Gallery, November 3, 2016-February 15, 2017; Officiated on November 27, 2016, by Wong Hon Wai, the political secretary to Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng. Opening times: 9am-5pm (closed on Fridays and public holidays).
Ooi Kok Chuen, art-writer and journalist, is the author of MAHSURI: A Legend Reborn (Ooi Peeps Publishing), an adult contemporary ‘movel’ (a novel conceived as a mock movie) fantasy spun from a local legend.

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