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Wong Keen: Forest

08.10 // 31.10. 2022


artcommune proudly presents Wong Keen: Forest, in which the artist’s first major installation work, along with his latest series of acrylic on rice paper paintings and collage works, will make their debut. The show opens at the gallery on 8 October 22, Saturday, 3 – 6pm, with the artist in attendance. 

One of Singapore’s leading painters, New York-trained artist Wong Keen is best known for his stylised expressions of visual themes including the flesh, the burger, the lotus and the nude. His prolific oeuvre, which encompasses oil, ink, acrylic, collage, and mixed media since the 1960s to the present, is a powerful embodiment of the delicate expressivity of Chinese ink wash aesthetics and Western inventive approach towards form and colour. From series to series, whether venturing anew or revisiting familiar techniques and imagery, Wong Keen’s relentless pursuit of compositional innovation, together with the enigmatic quality of his language, has given rise to a unique body of work that defies traditions and categorisation. 

This forthcoming exhibition, Forest, is titled after the 3-dimensional installation that anchors Wong Keen's latest presentation. Measuring approximately 5m (length) x 3m (height) x 1.2m (depth), it comprises almost one hundred original rice paper paintings that are suspended at a height from choreographed wood structures hand built by the artist. Mostly two-sided, sculptural and meat-like, these hanging rice paper paintings dazzle in varied sizes and colours. They alternate between forms that are variously flesh-hued and visceral or pastel and velvety in flourishes. Under lights from a distance, some appear particularly jagged and sun worn like taut hides with rough-hewn stitches, while others evoke patterns of ribs at a butcher’s display.


Above: Partial views of the prototype of the installation work

Forest charts the latest development in Wong Keen’s continual interrogation into the subject and form of his flesh series. Wong Keen first embarked on the visual discourse of flesh and meat during an artist residency at Galerie Urs Meile in Beijing in the summer of 2012. He innovated on new paint handling techniques to convey the structural expression of meat - colour, texture, density - and the composition often aims at a liberation of objects and meanings from familiar contexts. Over the years, the series grew to be anchored by a few main visual themes, mainly the burger, the butcher stall, and the nude.


On both visual and conceptual level, his recurring imagery of human flesh as synonymous with animal flesh evokes the idea of ‘nude as meat’ and expresses the parallels between different forms of “flesh trade” that are driven by man’s ubiquitous commodification and consumption of flesh. Just as the pigs and cows raised, trapped and butchered for products at large-scale industrial meat farms, a similar cycle of violence, oppression and consumption marks the particular fate of humans ensnared in the economy of flesh (such as the people trafficked for slave or sex trade). 

Over the past decade, Wong Keen's formal and philosophical exploration of this discourse through different materials and strategies has given rise to an expansive series that encompasses oil, ink, acrylic, collage and mixed media works. It has culminated in this immense installation that leverages the spatial qualities of both painting and sculpture. 

Wong Keen specifically refers to these hanging rice paper objects as his ‘flesh sculptures’, expressly situating them in a liminal space that negotiates between the abstract 2-dimensional form of a painting and the concrete 3-dimensional formulation of a sculpture. With these 'flesh sculptures' he has again pushed the envelope with the function and aesthetics of Chinese rice paper, imbuing it with properties that are almost antithetical to the material. From being fragile, soft, and absorbent, his unique treatment has transformed the Chinese rice paper into a sturdy and almost water-repellent material, all whilst retaining the fluid, expressive effects intrinsic to the beauty of the medium.

Audience at the exhibition will be encouraged to manoeuvre around the structures to look closely at the orchestrated array of 'flesh sculptures'. Certain aspects of the installation have been deliberately crafted to evoke the imagery of a slaughterhouse. The surrounding walls, adorned with Wong Keen’s latest series of acrylic on rice paper paintings and collage works, will envelop the viewer with other scintillating forms that echo the panoply of flesh and meat. Meandering within this forest of multivalent forms, the viewer is made to ponder on the mingling fates and likeness between the human and the animal. From the meat cuts at a butcher’s stall to the scrumptious patties compressed between burger buns, from the women paraded behind the glass door to the migrants paying to flee on perilous journeys, all these echo of conquered bodies bound for a market and lined up for consumption. Forest grapples with complex notions relating to the everyday socio-economic culture of human civilisation and the irresolvable barbarity that pervades ‘progress’. What kind of conclusion can one marshal amidst this endless cycle of lives upended and hung dry? 


2022, Acrylic on rice paper mounted on canvas, 146 x 202 cm

About the Artist

Wong Keen (b. 1942, Singapore) grew up in a Chinese literati environment and as a child studied drawing and painting under pioneer artists Liu Kang and Chen Wen Hsi. He was an acclaimed teenage painter in the early Singapore art scene and in 1961 held his first solo exhibition at age 19. That same year he travelled to America to study at the Art Students League of New York, becoming the first Singaporean and among the earliest of Chinese artists to venture into a flourished post-war American art scene. In 1965, Wong Keen became the first Singaporean and Asian of Chinese origin to be awarded the prestigious Edward G. McDowell Travelling Scholarship in the history of the Art Students League. With the scholarship he went on a one-year postgraduate program at the then St. Martin’s School of Art in London. Upon completing his postgraduate studies in 1966, Wong Keen settled in America and formally returned to the Singapore art scene again in the 1990s. 

Having spent over fifty years in the US, Wong Keen registered a plethora of artistic influences that melded the fast-paced American art scene. His prolific oeuvre, which encompasses oil, ink, acrylic, collage, and mixed media since the 1960s to the present, is a powerful embodiment of the delicate expressivity of Chinese ink wash aesthetics and Western inventive approach towards form and colour. In 2007, the Singapore Art Museum celebrated his masterful oeuvre with the solo exhibition, Wong Keen: A Singapore Abstract Expressionist. Wong Keen’s work is held in a number of private and public collections, including the National Art Museum of China, Minnesota State University Art Museum, Albright Knox Art Gallery, New York, National Gallery Singapore, Urban Redevelopment Authority, Singapore, Resorts World Sentosa and Fullerton Hotel.

Official Opening with Artist in Attendance
Date: 8 October 2022, Saturday, 3 – 6pm 

Exhibition Period
Date: 8 - 31 October 2022
Time: 12 – 7pm daily
Venue: artcommune gallery (address below)
Contact Information
artcommune gallery
76 Bras Basah Road
#01-01 Singapore 189558
Tel: +65 63364240       M: +65 97479046

Artist Wong Keen says there is beauty in the horror of his new installation (2022, Oct 11)

Retrieved from The Straits Times website.

王瑾首个大型装置 营造屠宰场视觉意象 (2022, Oct 13)

Retrieved from 联合早报 website. 

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