Trying to unmask Khoo Sui Hoe

loading Self Portrait at 35, oil on canvas, 1995, 61cm x 51cm.

In the words of an ardent admirer, the unfathomable Khoo Sui Hoe has been creating “a cosmos populated with myths, tantalising messages, fascinating beasts, people and himself – transfigured in spontaneous imagery and creative morphology.” After a lifetime travelling the world, this highly creative artist has been using Penang as his base since 2004.

He’s the painting himself. He’s all over the canvases, one way or the other, there in personifications or in his worldview projections which come out in careless whispers.

KHOO SUI HOE, the person and his art, is often considered enigmatic and inscrutable.

How so, when his subjects, his images and his compositions are all so disarming in their simplicity?

Even the artist himself is constantly calm and seldom ruffled, and speaks candidly and sagely in soft measured tones. What more his being a quiet “doer” – making things happen apart from these painted canvases of his which have intrigued the art world for half a century.

Truth be told, Sui Hoe defies labels, especially pretentious or hyperbolic ones.

His art – and his commitment to it and the passion he has about it – speaks for itself. His purpose in life, since way back in the halcyon 1961 when he became a fulltime artist, is to paint and paint, and to continue painting.

As he paints, Sui Hoe is what is being painted. He’s all over the canvases, one way or the other, there in personifications or in his worldview projections which come out in careless whispers.

His works are, like Picasso’s, autobiographical and yet spout universal values, not in a didactic way, but in the spirit of life-affirmation, in sharing life’s unheralded little joys – that of togetherness, companionship or camaraderie, and that of alone-ness – being with oneself and at one with the natural surroundings, and at peace with an undecipherable higher being, without being religiously so.

Painter-sculptor Heng Eow Lin, one in his closest coterie, once gave me a simple Khoo Sui Hoe paintingsto- life analogy, how his works are related to his life journey – struggles (the rebellious years when he was at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Art in Singapore – NAFA, 1959–1961), dreams, courtship, marriage, having children, travels (Cameron Highlands landscapes and especially Bali), separation, wedding, parenthood all over again, and the “settled and more secured period” expressed with the infusion of rainbow hues.

Yet, whatever disappointments there are, the anguish and travails – they are not in the vocabulary of Sui Hoe’s art, which is about positive, rapturous, even humorous things.

Sui Hoe is a dream merchant of love and of lovinglife in all its gorgeous simplicity and innocence,uncluttered and unadulterated – a dream world dubbed “Inscapes” (Inner Landscapes) by that highly perceptive arts commentator Datuk Seri Lim Chong Keat, the collector who boasts of the single largest individual collection of Sui Hoe’s career paintings.

Pushing 72 this July, Sui Hoe seems contented with the status quo he set himself after he relocated back to Malaysia, to Penang in a big way back in 2004 – while spending the other half of his time in the US – where he had first sett led in 1982 in Houston, Texas, and in 1996 in Little Rock, Arkansas.

He uses Penang as his base, and travels to Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Th ailand, Indonesia, China, Taiwan and Australia for exhibitions or for visiting artist-friends. In Penang, at 83 China Street, a heritage building refurbished by Tan Yeow Wooi, he set up Alpha-Utara Gallery – Alpha after the Alpha Gallery in Singapore (7 Alexander Avenue) he set up in 1970 with seven other artists (opened in October 1971), and Utara after the group Utara (“to fill the vacuum of contemporary art in the north”), which he founded in 1977. Membership in the Utara group was stringently kept small, even from artists from the Northern states.

Khoo Sui Hoe posing with his painting, Rebirth of A Dynasty (oil on canvas, 2010, 244cm x 183cm) at Pipal Fine Art.

The stylisations of his fi gures can be traced to Cheong Soo-Pieng, a dominating teacher when he was at NAFA, the others being Georgette Chen and Lai Foong Mooi.

Truth is, Sui Hoe has taken the Nanyang Style model and turned it on its head – giving it the fine, delicate lines of Modigliani and the simplified forms of Foujita perhaps, and re-morphing it into Shadow Man silhouettes a la wayang kulit props or with Easter Island statue profile. Outstanding is Dawn of Man (1987) and the series from the mid-1980s – Man and his Shadow, Man and his World and Man and Moon. Refi ned in the US, they are all rebranded as a kind of Lyrical Primitivism.

The figures are ageless, looking like indigenous people without racial stereotypes though occasionally you get the girl with pottu on the forehead as in Encounter (1970) or the self-explanatory Little Black Couple (1965) and Black Girl (1970). Some figures take a flight of fancy in horizontal levitation Chagall-like.

Sui Hoe’s paintings are about the theatricality of gestures and postures, like a Legong dance free-framed in its swaying rhythm, with a kind of resonance of the silence, a calcified silence like an eternity.

Often the figures are part of the landscapes, if not the landscapes, and sometimes vice versa. Mountain forms in the shape of humans, and humans looking like sculptured boulders. When posed about this paradox, during his “Landscapes Through The Years” exhibition at the Pipal Fine Arts in Kuala Lumpur in April, he was momentary taken aback, but replies cryptically: “Could be!”

It was his third “Landscape” show, the first two being at his Singapore gallery called “From Mountains To The Sea” in 1972 and “Landscapes” at Alliance Francaise in Singapore in November-December 1979.

How different is the present “Landscapes” from the previous? “Size,” he retorts. He confides that previously, there was a restriction of space, physically as well as mentally, when the size of his works was only two feet by two feet. “This is bigger.”

Not that he has not done BIG works. There is that magnum opus, Children of the Sun (1965), measuring 244cm x 244cm, done when he was in Singapore, when he was billeted at Datuk Seri Lim’s Pasir Panjang seaside cottage, apart from one more, now lost One Day in 1946 (1966), also measuring 244cm x 244cm.

Years ago, he had confided to me that he didn’t like to do big works, because it was not easy to get canvases that large, and are difficult to store and carry around.

But now Sui Hoe, especially after having done Rebirth Of A Dynasty (244cm x 183cm, 2010), with its own symbolic mythos, and three other large works, is thinking BIG and wants to do more so as to mount an exhibition solely of big works.

His other earlier notable large works include A Rainbow Day (1977, 182.5cm x 365cm, collection of Bank Negara), The Golden Wedding (1965–1966, 122cm x 366cm, United Overseas Bank Collection), One Fine Day (1968, 183cm x 183cm) and Joy of Living (1967, 203cm x 203cm). He had also painted a huge mural size painting, Fishing Village (1963, oil on masonite board with images of 77 coconut trees!), for the Penang State Museum.

Children Of The Sun was first shown at the Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House in 1965 and had stayed in place, apparently to cover a crack in the shanghai plasters, until Frank Sullivan, the press secretary to Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman asked that it be taken back to Kuala Lumpur with a view to the National Art Gallery acquiring it. But it languished at the Railway Godown in Kuala Lumpur and was finally taken back to Singapore, before it was acquired by Datuk Seri Lim.

Sui Hoe’s painted locale is often the forest, rubber plantations, villages, mangrove swamps, lakes, rivers and seascapes. More recently, he has moved further inland showing manmade playground, pier platform, bridges with boats and poles and even one with a headboard part of an iron-cast bed, probably inspired from his wife Shu-Jane’s furniture business.

Children of the Sun (1965).

A Rainbow Day, 1977, oil on canvas, 182.5cm x 365cm.

The water element has always been lodged in his inner consciousness, sometimes with the play of the water’s reflection. In 1965, his Two By The Lake won the First Prize in the Malayan Art and Craft Competition, while later works feature nubile water nymphs partly submerged in water.

Time, or its “absence,” is another important element. “What I painted is related to the feeling of the people, of how they see things or think at that particular time,” he explains.

Then there is that omnipresent little birdy – a bonafide resident in the paddy fields or littoral fringes, like companion/chaperone and as an intruder, but symbolic of his vagabond nature before he left for the US in 1982. Before that, the Baling-born artist had no permanent home.

In his earlier hobo artist days, he stayed at Kuo Juping’s 169 Victoria Street in Penang; Datuk Seri Lim’s 291 Jalan Pasir Panjang seaside cottage in Singapore; fellow artist Quek Wee Chew’s No. 8 Barbary Walk (one year) in Singapore; Yeo Hoe Koon’s attic abode at 15, Kuala Kangsar Road in Penang; the upper floor artist’s studio at (Datuk) Tay Mo-Leong’s Galeri de Mai at 259 Kimberly Street; Pratuang Emjaroen’s house in Bangkok (six months); Datuk Seri Lim’s Macalister Road mansion (1975–1981) as a resident artist; and his own studio cum abode at Cameron Highlands.

He paints mostly in oils although he dabbled with acrylic and masking tape in his “Cameron Highlands” series, before he left for the US. His paintings of drifting cotton-wool clouds were also inspired by this highland fling.

“I love clouds because they are endless,” he once told me. “My paintings are my memory, my recollections during my childhood days in the kampong.”

He introduces “framed windows” into his works in 1984, which later become like a portal, an entry point to a new consciousness, creating an uneasy relationship between Man and Nature.

These “frames” also signify rules and regulations, the inhibitions of traditions and customs, even real physical encumbrances and obstacles – but none that could not be easily dismantled.

“Each time I come back, I discover something new that I didn’t see or feel before. It makes me see better, actually not what I see but what and how I feel. When you are in it someplace, you don’t feel it.”

Golden Wedding (1966).

The colours have also changed, exuding a mysterious, mystical aura before they turned into an array of rainbow hues in the 1990s, like in Nightfall (1992) with its Caribbean Calypso gaiety, and Rhythmic Boundaries (1995) with more prismatic geometry like Anuar Rashid’s Inderapura.

It was also around this time that he introduced his “Masks” series which adds dimensions, textures and characters to his more simplified and flat faces. Significantly, he had revisited Bali, known for its dance and drama and masks, in 1992. He celebrated this with a solo called “Heads and Masks” at Thailand’s National Gallery in Bangkok in 1997.

“I am still very much concerned with humanity. Figure is still my means of expression. Human forms still fascinate me, they keep coming back. I feel that Man is very lonely and isolated. They have their freedom and yet are finding ways to be free.”

His stays in the US including his 1974 stint at the Pratt Graphic Centre in New York under the John Rockefeller III Fellowship and exposures there also put him in better stead as an artist. He was awarded the Certificate of Merit in the Asian Art Now show at the Las Vegas Museum in 2002 and 2004.

Sui Hoe, who dropped the ‘e’ in his “Hoe” in the 1990s when in Indonesia, significantly and symbolically reinstated the ‘e’ in his major Retrospective at the Penang State Art Gallery called “The Painted World of Khoo Sui Hoe” in November 2007.

It was preceded by a double “mini survey” exhibition called “Looking Back – Paintings of the Last 12 Years” at HELP Institute in Kuala Lumpur and the Graha Collectors Gallery in Jakarta in 1992, a show at the Shanghai Museum in July 2005, and a quasiretrospective at Datuk Seri Lim’s Bellevue Hotel in Penang Hill in 2000, just after his (Sui Hoe’s) recovery from a heart surgery.

In a nutshell, Datuk Seri Lim best sums up Sui Hoe’s art: “He created a cosmos populated with myths, tantalising messages, fascinating beasts, people and himself – transfigured in spontaneous imagery and creative morphology. The environment and natural forms are part of his visual language and form-making; hills, trees, sun, moon and atmosphere are woven into his compositions, unrealistic – but credible within his Inscape, his world in art. The artist often expresses a subtle humour within the plastic game of merging forms, and more obviously with postures and situations.”

NOTE: “KHOO SUI HOE – Landscapes Through The Years”, was held at Pipal Fine Art at Lot S-215, 2nd Floor, The Gardens Mall, Mid Valley City, Kuala Lumpur, April 2–23, 2011.

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

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