Choong Kam Kow – A this-worldly visionary

loading Choong Kam Kow.

At 80, Choong Kam Kow is finally getting his hugely deserved “Oscar” moment in his major Retrospective, honoured by the National Visual Arts Gallery.

Choong Kam Kow’s 258 selected works stand as beacons to some 57 years of passion and toil in creating 15 distinct, defining series including the groundbreaking Festival series and his mimetic Back-to-Nature quadrant (of Trunkscapes, Rockscapes, Earthscapes and Lakescape), apart from the Shaped Canvas and SEA-Thru series! Works done with workmanlike efficacy primed in a sheer totality of conception with the tension of yin-yang dualisms and East-West dichotomy; works imbibing sociohistorical constructs as printings and assemblages-sculptures that defy conventional modes, references and engagements. A bevy of 18 totemic solo exhibitions, 15 held in the US, Britain, Japan, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

As an administrator/art educator, Choong is a visionary and taskmaster, helping revamp syllabuses during his 20 years teaching at the Mara Institute of Technology including a stint as head of the Fine Arts Department (1969-1989); as dean of the La-Salle-SIA College of the Arts in Singapore (1989-1994); and as the first chief executive officer/president of the Malaysian Institute of Art (1995- 2009), virtually railroading it into the 21st century by getting LAN accreditation and actualising twinning programmes.

Composition in Red, Blue & Green (oil and mixed media on canvas, 1967) – a seminal work from his first New York series.

He had the rare distinction of being an art student (Pratt Institute, New York, 1966-1968) while heading the Art Department of the United Nations International School!

Works from the Fit For Life Dai-Ji series.

As art-ivist, he has served with aplomb since 1988 as the Malaysian chairman of the Federation of Asian Artists (FAA) and the vehicle behind the Asian Invitational Artists Exhibition (AIAE), and has even steered three host jobs in KL, namely in 1990, 1998 and 2009. He also served on the then-National Art Gallery’s board of trustees from 2005-2009.

It says much that his works are in august institutions such as the New York Metropolitan of Art, Fukuoka Art Museum, Taipei Fine Art Museum, Frederikshavn Art Museum (Denmark), Guangdong Museum of Art (China) and the Singapore Art Museum, to name a few.

Purposeful, forceful and with a finicky thoroughness of doing things, Choong is the embodiment of the consummate artist, the virtual “Leonardo Man” (Vitruvian Man) model of perfection.

Son of a farmer in the once tin-mining boom town of Ipoh, Choong showed keen interest in art when young, and his career took off when he studied at the National Taiwan Normal University, graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1961 – a degree not recognised by the Malaysian government.

His two-time studies in the US (1965- 1968 and 1980-1981) pivoted his shift into uncharted terrain and his thrust into the grating sensibility of American Geo-Ab: he produced several significant works such as Composition in Red, Blue and Green (1967, using modelling paste for tactile quality), which, had he been American, would have ranked him with the likes of Malevich, Mondrian, Hans Hoffman and Clyfford Still!

Choong at his Adviser’s Booth at Art Expo Malaysia in 2008.

Rhythmic Flow (acrylic on canvas).

He was also at the right place at the right time with the right people: during his Taiwan days, he was under the tutelage of the “Waterfall King” Huang Jun-Bi (1898-1991), Ma Pai-Sui (1909-2003), Japantrained Lin Yu-shan, the blue-blooded Berlin-trained Pu Xin-Yu @ Puru (1890- 1963) and Wang Chuang-Wei (1909-1998).

In New York, his mentor roster grew to include Walter Rogalski (1923-1996) and George McNeil (1908-1995). Those were exciting times too. Totalitarian Taiwan (under martial law until 1987) contrasted sharply with the New York Culture Shock zeitgeist.

But with his newfangled works, he was soon to identify with the New Scene artists of clinically analytical, nonemotional and Hard-Edge brood who included Tang Tuck Kang (1934-2002), Joseph Tan (1941-2001), Redza Piyadasa (1939-2007) and Tan Teong Kooi.

All his series are connected with the life experiences he had had and the sociopolitical changes of the times. His New York stints resulted in his New York Series, the Shaped Canvas series (1969-1972) influenced by Frank Stella (born 1936) and the SEA-Thru series (1971-1975 and an updated 2002 series) using erhu (twostringed bow violin)-like panels in relief with square openings with an industrial finish and a play of vibrations and koan (emptiness).

After New York, Choong returned to a different Malaysia in the aftermath of the May 13, 1969 internecine strife, with the loss of innocence and all the euphoria of Independence, what with the bumiputrabased New Economic Policy (NEP, 1970) and the 1971 National Cultural Congress which extolled cultural introspection (akar-akar seni bumi).

That was why he laid out his Festival series (1977-1998), an Eastern Pop Art simulating the zhong (rice dumplings with meat fillings), pulut panggang (grilled glutinous rice), ketupat (rice packets in screwpine) and angku (red-tortoise cakes) using paper-cast handmade paper with knot yarns and twines in mock packaging and silkscreen for colour veneer and serrated printed textuality. This, even when the indigenous reassertions came in vogue with the 2nd Asean Workshop, Exhibition and Symposium on Aesthetics in 1993!

The landmark scientific expedition to the National Park enclave of Endau-Rompin in 1985 and a Bako Park excursion in 1987 renewed his wonder for the natural heritage, producing his twin series Trunkscapes (1985-1992) and Rockscapes (1985-1991) with acrylic on shaped handmade paper. Trunkscapes shows mock replicas of giant lingzhi (ganoderma) sprouting from stumps of dead “tree trunks” while Rockscapes explores colours and patterns of sandstone plateaus and ridges. Earthscapes (1987) stems from memories of the opencast tin-mining landscapes in Ipoh. His Lakescape (1987) series was inspired by a trip to the mythical Tasik Cini in Pahang, an expedition organised by the Malaysian Artists Association in 1987.

The year 2000 coincided with the Chinese lunar Year of the Dragon, and in his Dragon series, Choong also reromanced his Chinese-ness, apart from the symbolic and talismanic panoply of a wi-xi (magical Tibetan beads) armour.

Floor and wall displays of Choong’s SEA-Thru series.

A work from the Dragon series celebrating the advent of the third millennium.

An early expressionist ink painting of mountains.

Works from his geometric Shaped Canvas series.

Festive Mood 89-1 (mixed media, 1989).

But in mid-2005, Choong was diagnosed with colon cancer and took up Qi-Gong on recuperation after an operation. This led to his Gong-Fu series where he returned to figuratives in a big way. In both his Dragon and Gong-Fu series, Choong relied on the divination tomes of the T’ung Shu (Book of Myriad Changes) and the I-Ching, with random silkscreened text reproductions, like some kind of ornamentative exhortations from past civilisations. He also infuses the Five Elements (wu-xing) of Nature – Earth, Metal, Wood, Fire and Water.

His Dragon works were also inspired by the dragon dance competitions he saw on Genting Highlands, while his Gong-Fu series recalled a 2003 visit to the famed Shaolin Monastery in Zhengzhou (Henan province), China where he marvelled at the pugilistic feats and stances.

At the launch of the Choong Kam Kow Retrospective by the Perak Raja Permaisuri Tuanku Zara Salim, with Choong (right) and Datuk Mahadzir Lokman, chairman of the National Visual Arts Development Board.

As a form of detoxification and selfhealing with the practice of breathcontrol very much like what the Chinese brush artists of ancient China did, Choong also took up Taijiquan, extrapolating his breathing techniques and harnessing manoeuvres onto canvas.

Apart from several art prizes at home and abroad, he was also conferred the Ahli Mangku Negara (AMN) by the King in 2000.

For a strapping teenager who held his first solo exhibition at an association hall in Ipoh in 1965 and whose last local show was in 1995 (Universiti Malaya’s Asian Art Museum), Choong has come a long, long way. While the Retrospective in his 80th year is a crowning glory, this iconoclast of art and thought may yet spring more happy surprises.

The Choong Kam Kow Retrospective, Cross Culture – Trans Era, runs at the National Visual Arts Gallery, KL from November 18, 2014 to March 31, 2015.

Ooi Kok Chuen has been writing on the art scene at home and abroad for 30 years.

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