Sunday January 27, 2013
A journey through Tew Nai Tong's work and life
By OOI KOK CHUEN
Tew Nai Tong’s latest exhibition is a veritable journey through the veteran artist’s work and life.
THE Glories exhibition is a cursory timeline of Tew Nai Tong’s art, craft and life, taking up the story nearly 35 years into his career after his first art studies at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in Singapore (Nafa, 1957-58).
Maybe not so much by design, the 28 works offer glimpses of his different periods and at different places, while he varies on his trademark “Nanyang-and-Post” repertoire in terms of nuanced changes in technique, style and subject.
Starting from 1991 (Sisters And Free Land), the works do show, as a capsule, how he breaks convention in terms of colour, spacing, perspective, depth, form and surface painting (brushstrokes and palette knife). His latest, Morning Market (2012) and Childhood Happy Life (2012), also leave a “negative” corner space of drawings to reveal the incipient strokes as well as for strategic contrast with the heavy impastoes.
Significantly, the “starting point” in this show was a time when Tew began painting in oil (1990) after working mostly in watercolours. It was also when he went truly full-time (1992) following a 23-year teaching career at three local art institutions.
Now 77, the Klang (Selangor)-born Tew is regarded as one of the very last “Nanyang” (Southern Seas) Style matinee heroes (his living contemporaries in Paris, Tan Tong and Long Thien Shih, are not Nafa-trained).
He has remained faithful to the subject of the charms of the old Malaya with its frontier unexplored land and sparse, harsh vegetation. But there are subtle developments resulting in a style that has been more noticeable over the last three decades and a half, with his remodelled Figures.
Yes, the “Nanyang Style” wannabe who started at Nafa and then followed up with tutelage in Paris (Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts, 1967-68) is now a master in his own right.
Some may compare his early works to those of the Singapore art pioneer Cheong Soo-pieng (who, incidentally, never taught him at Nafa), though he was not into Cheong’s exaggerated forms and gestures like elongated limbs and distended torsos.
His figures are imbued with the spirit of the bygone age – a willingness to work, carefree, a bit naive perhaps, serene and contented, uncomplicated and most of all, free!
Women are the favoured sex in Tew’s figurations with their cheeks sometimes ruddy and sometimes pale like in a Le Pho painting. At times, the figure appears androgynous.
Men or women, on Tew’s canvas, they are all born with “squinty eyes” or “phoenix eyes”, an attribute redolent of the refined figure stereotypes of the Tang and Sung dynasty arts in China.
If you look carefully, both sexes are coined in the visage of the artist himself, squinty eyes et al. The Amber Chia lips are different though, to suggest a pout – of coyness as well as for a touch of humour. Also, his figures are, in line with the times, clothed and not half-naked or even clad in brassieres, for modesty and a certain decency.
If at all, his figures are more akin to Modigliani’s, with the graceful “pulled” lines and slightly rouged faces. On a deeper bonding level, there is the mother-and-child theme – a perennial favourite of artists West or East.
Tew likes to subvert the time-honoured colour wheel using colours as emotive projection and even decoration, sometimes off-tangent of one another, and not as naturally prescribed. This is most obvious in his technicolour cows that come in purple, red, green, orange....
His palette has also changed from the duller ochres couched in the sombre in the pre-1990s to interesting, much brighter hues in keeping with the tropical milieu.
He uses outlines to demarcate and register the various forms and spaces, with coloured geometric patches as backdrops. His trademark technique also includes the vertical pole – tree or stave – that cleaves the composition into two, even three – something that is a disaster in the hands of a novice.
His works are down-to-earth and people-orientated, pushing the ground-level horizontal line upwards, compressing the sky. Even the landscapes are as they are – backdrops. The Figure is The Thing.
Various techniques and elements are often brewed in his painting pot like in Charming Girl (2007 – the Year of his Retrospective at the then-National Art Gallery), which combines figures, still-life (flowers in transparent cylindrical vase) and a painting-within-a-painting format.
Balinese Dancers (1998) notches a de rigueur interpretation as is wont of artists in the region, making pilgrimages to the mythical island of dance and rituals.
There is one concession to urban life, Leisure (2001) – of Parisian kids roller-skating in thick clothing in the streets under a cloak of grey autumnal backdrop. Done in his last revisit to Paris, it followed an annual pilgrimage from 1999 – the first after a lapse of nearly 30 years.
Tew’s works remain true to the old ways of life – its serenity and simplicity and also dignity, reflecting fleetingly on the relationship between man and nature, man and animals. It also dwells on culture and tradition.
There is also the notion of plentiful – with the abundance of fruits, and where the fowls, cattle and goats are treated more like pets than a protein sustenance on the dinner table.
There are two large works in the show – Tew’s new fascination with the panorama, especially in the Festival Series celebrating the multi-cultural spectrums (not shown here). The bigger works reflect more his greater sense of freedom and also in terms of the expression of movement.
One, Precious Moments (2012), a diptych measuring 2 x 148.6cm x 119.4cm, shows a bevy of rubber tappers seemingly as “tall” as the trees shouldering poles with big buckets of tapped latex on each end. The other, Glories (2012), stretching 138cm x 242.6cm, packs a repertoire of the villagers’ pastimes – kite-flying, fighting cockerel, top-spinning and bird-rearing.
Just like his Chagall-like nudes hovering in the air in dreamscapes like a human dirigible as in Life Of Freedom, it registers a transient spirit looking for permanence, pleasure and peace, like the refugees of life in search of a better place and a better tomorrow. It resonates with the artist’s inner cry for his own freedom, whatever it is.
> Glories, a solo art exhibition by Tew Nai Tong, is on display at Pinkguy Malaysia Art & Frame in Jalan Pinang, Kuala Lumpur, until Feb 2. For details, call 03-2166 2166.