Chew Teng Beng - A pioneering artist and teacher


Awards for his art came often to Dr Chew Teng Beng. His long love affair with the US did not stop him coming back to Malaysia, and basing himself in Penang. His influence as an artist comes as much from his role as teacher as from his paintings.

When Dr Chew Teng Beng, a pioneering Malaysian abstract artist, was offered a job at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), then Universiti Penang, in 1969, he did not take it up until three years later.

He had everything going for him in the US where he was studying and then teaching, and his paintings were selling well there.

A coveted Fulbright-Hays scholarship that he won enabled him to take up art studies at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan in September 1967 (orientation in August in Pittsburgh)-1968. He managed to get the departmental scholarships at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor to pursue his Bachelor of Fine Arts (1968-1969) and then his Masters (1969-1970), both of which he astonishingly completed in a year each. A Teaching Fellowship allowed him to lecture in life-drawing and printmaking at the same university.

Between 1968 and 1972, he had eight solo exhibitions, including two in Washington (Georgetown Gallery and the International Monetary Fund gallery), his first being at the Allen Rubiner Gallery in Detroit where all the works were bought up! He was also headhunted to teach at the Siena Heights College in Adrian, Michigan, where he set up the Painting and the Printmaking departments, and headed both.

With the tidy sum from the sale of his works, he sent for his wife and then two daughters to join him. He has altogether four daughters – Bee Sian, Bee Neo, Bee Lay and Bee Siew – all educated in the US from elementary level, and now settled there.

It was a dream start for an Asian to have excelled academically and to have his art instantly appreciated in an art-sophisticated society. He even won the major prize, the Paul Neal Averill Prize worth US$400, in the 1st Michigan Bloomfield Art Association juried art contest, besting some 700 entries, in 1968! But return he did, because he was homesick, and by his grudging admission, he was “being patriotic.” Besides, he loathed the drab winters.

His love affair with the US also extended to a PhD stint at New York University from 1983-1986, apart from several occasional trips to visit his daughters then studying there, and for academic purposes and exhibitions like the major Contemporary Paintings of Malaysia exhibition at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena in 1988. Now, he divides his time between Penang and New York, both also staging posts for his frequent travels that often inspire his sonorous abstract landscapes of contemplative Richard Diebiekorn hues, miniscule coralscapes, layered mesmerising reams or works with “water bubble” textural effects.

In 1972, he set up base in Penang where he single-handedly established the Fine Arts Department at USM, then headed by Robert Van Neil, and was chairman of the Fine Arts Section with the power to hire; and was appointed associate professor (1980) but retired as professor in 1993, the year he was selected as a Malaysian artist representative at the 1st Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in Brisbane, Australia.

His other major international highlights include the travelling exhibitions of Malaysian Art (1965-1978) in Europe; the Asian Art Show in Fukuoka, Japan in 1980; and the Rupa Contemporary Malaysian Art Show at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) in 1998.

In 1994-1998, he was director of academic affairs at the Equator Academy of Art and Design in Penang, where he was instrumental in starting its twinning programmes. In 1995-1996, he also acted as principal of the Central Academy of Art in Kuala Lumpur. For his immense contributions in art education, he was conferred the honorary Doctor of Art by de Montfort University, Leicester, Britain in 1995.

His last job as an academician was as chief executive officer at the Putra National College in Penang in 1999. That year, he also curated the Retrospective exhibition of Dr Zakaria Ali at the Penang State Art Gallery (PSAG), a year after he was given his own Retrospective by the PSAG, celebrating 45 years of art-making, since an extant 1953 watercolour, Batas Batu II, with a John Constable treatment.

He also helped shape the arts and cultural direction in his various capacities such as chairman of the Co-Curriculum Programme on Culture (1989-1991), and member of the National Advisory Council on Culture (1980- 1982, 1989-1990) and its chairman (Visual Art and Craft Committee) in 1980-1982.

In 1973-1976 and 1991-1998, he sat on the board of the Penang State Museum, as member, vicechairman and selection chairman. In all these, he was known for his forthright views and constructive ideas. He also headed the Penang Watercolour Society in 1999-2000.

A few major personal milestones were when he won the British Council Visitorship Award in 1975 and the Australian Cultural Award, the first for a Malaysian, in 1978.

From young, he was apprenticed to his father, Chew Kok Kee, who was a commercial artist. In school, he founded the Terengganu Youth Art Club and was its president and instructor in 1959-1961. He was a senior art teacher at the Sekolah Menengah Chung Hwa Wei Sin in 1964-1965 and lecturer in arts and crafts at the Regional Training Centre in Kuala Terengganu in 1965-1967.

When Tay Hooi Keat, later Datuk, the chief inspector of education, visited Terengganu on sketching trips, he was guided in the terrain by Teng Beng. He was suitably impressed with Teng Beng’s redoubtable talents in painting and teaching and strongly recommended him to the Teachers Training College, where he was posted in 1959-1961. Teng Beng was also at the Specialist Teachers Training Institute in 1964, when he did a thesis on batik painting.

In 1964, he was thrust into the limelight as recipient of the coveted Frank Sullivan Prize as Most Outstanding Artist. Teng Beng was also privileged to have shown around reputable artists such as American Prof Neil Welliver (1929-2005), as well as Singapore art pioneers Georgette Chen and Cheong Soo-pieng. In 1963, he won two first prizes in watercolours and a second prize in the oil category in the Terengganu Open Art competition.

He was already a precocious art student and he and his two younger brothers, Kiat Seng and Kiat Lim, were jointly given double exhibitions in Kuala Lumpur (British Council) and Singapore (Singapore Polytechnic) in 1965, under The Chew Brothers banner. Kiat Seng was to excel in advertising in San Francisco, while Kiat Lim worked on artistic façade and interior mega-installations in Toronto, Canada.

Since 2000, Teng Beng has been concentrating on his paintings with the dexterity of even patterning, and most of all a colour field that is at once ruminative with subtle gradations and leathery sheen and also one with the gestalt of ambiguous lines and strokes.

“I work in series and it can be fluid but there is no delineation.”

His works play on positive-negative spaces, oscillating between landscapes and figures at times. They revolve around colour structures, relationships and awkward rhythms but without a formulaic schema, evoking phlegmatic mood and also an ecstatic wondrous beauty of brilliance.

“I work in series and it can be fluid but there is no delineation,” he explains. He has indeed come a long way from the bucolic scenes of fishing villages and idyllic kampong life in watercolours in the 1950s; he was already into oils like in a 1963 work, Contemplation with the push-out detaching of a huge table across canvas. He had shown an uncanny sense of draughtsmanship, with a great interplay of line and washes.

A pen and ink work like Fishermen (1963) already delves into a busy pictorial cell-like schema while a 1963 oil, Payang, done during his teacher training, is an attempt at geometry and nearfar perspectives. His 1966 Sawah tells of the rich arable land that is vast and a bit wild – unexploited and unexplored, while a 1994 Sawah with a view from higher foreground has a more orderly and clean look with a row of houses in the middle offright, suggesting development of a cleared land.

His earlier works are more lodged in specific locations, identified by titles such as Seberang Takir, Pulau Redang, Batu Rakit or the austere Kuala Berang, but later works become dramatically abstracted or are a composite like those of his long-running and ongoing Spiritual Light Series.

In 1968, he was already using spraying techniques and crinkled canvases, and making innovative abstract forays of intriguing textures and forms, and during this period, he was also dabbling in lithographs, woodcuts and etchings, revealing an aptitude for printmaking.

His Mandalay Series (1970) introduces emblematic emboss on a soothing mauve-ochre palette; and he was in the thick of personally “baked” handmade paper, which has become his metier, as early as 1974 with a papyrus slab form and deckled edges, and his 1977 Coralscapes Series, with its “dried orangepeel” collages. There is also his Siew Siew (1978) and Pulau Bidong Series in 1979.

From 1978 to 1988, he received a research grant from USM on the production of pulp and paper from agricultural residues, and in 1980, he was even invited to Darwin, Australia to teach paper-making. The 1980s saw him revisiting Terengganu landscapes in collage prints, also Batu Ferringhi, but the times were dominated more by his more fragmented and stacked Rocks Series and a continuation of his Coralscapes with more vein-like textures.

In the 1990s, Teng Beng opted for solitary female nudes, while continuing still with Coralscapes, while his Landscapes Series played on a phalanx of “molten” paint daubs with his Reflection Series being more sobering and imbued with fluent, smooth and graceful brushstrokes.

In recent years, Teng Beng has re-infused his “water bubble” textural repertoire into his works, as they get more spiritual and therapeutic rather than mimetic or lodged in specific natural scenarios. He has worked on large canvases of four feet by nine feet, but is unperturbed by the dynamics of scale, for the sense of expansive spaces is integral to his expressive quality.

At 74, Teng Beng displays a sharpness and sensitivity of eye and mind, with an apothecary’s skill in the quaint alchemy of colours that blends West and East, bifurcating his fleeting rhapsodised moments in New York and Penang, and in the exotic places he keeps visiting in between.

Ooi Kok Chuen has been writting on the art scene at home and abroad for 28 years.

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