A Sojourn with
Singapore Female Artist
Chen Cheng Mei
16 – 31 Jan, 2021
Physical viewing available in Singapore
Address: 215 Henderson Road #01-05, S’pore 159554
Monday to Friday: 10am – 6 pm
Weekends: By appointment
Specialist: David Fu, Sui Chen
Tel: +65 6747 4555
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In an environment where it is male dominated, Chen Cheng Mei (Singaporean, 1927 – 2020) made her name in the Singapore local art scene, as an artist who has traversed the world avidly. Chen painted her sojourns in vivid colours of oil painting and spontaneous prints.
Born in 1927, in the colonial era, Chen’s childhood pastime was filled with colours from the orchid and fruit tree planted at her house backyard by her father Tan Chye Siam.
Tutored under Cheong Soo Pieng and Lim Hak Tai, Chen’s art practice yields through attentive observation from her surroundings. Her passion to paint led her to frequent outdoor sketching activities with T.Y Choy and Lim Cheng Hoe.
In a conversation with late artist Lai Foong Moi, who had just returned from Paris after further study there, inspired Chen to paint with inspiration by seeing the world, to observe the foreign land in order to chart newer grounds of art experimentations.
Chen Cheng Mei, Sampan, 2009
46 x 29.5 cm, oil on canvas
Beginning 1960, Chen resigned from her French translating job at the bank and journeyed across Malaysia with her brother Tan Teo Kwang, classmate Choo Keng Kwang and teacher Lim Tze Peng. Hit by monsoon floods, Chen’s first art sojourn up north was not well documented.
A year later, 1961, her second art voyage organized together with Yeh Chi Wei was inspirational, and concluded with a very successful exhibition at Victoria Memorial Hall. This 1961 self-organized art excursion was the genesis of the famed ‘Ten Men Art Group’. Between 1961 – 1970, Chen and 9 other artists traveled extensively to primitive locations to gather novel subject matters for their creative output. From these travels, she depicted what she experienced into vivid artworks creating a refreshing style, painting contentiously raw and naïve.
Working as an artist in an era with little to no modern technology, Ten Men Art Group set to explore ancient civilization all-round. The group was instrumental in shaping early visual understanding of Southeast Asia entity.
10 ethnic Chinese artists, through their excursions to the Malayan peninsula (Java, Bali, Thailand, Cambodia. Sarawak, Sabah, Brunei and Sumatra), shook off their Chinese aesthetic sense and taught themselves to see a world beyond their Chinese identity. They were conscious and compassionate about different ethnicity and culture.
After each venture, their trip culminates to an art exhibition (usually self-funded) to concluded what was newly seen and felt.
Chen Cheng Mei, Great Wall of China, 1978
106.8 x 60.8 cm, oil on canvas
Clockwise: Chen Cheng Mei at Bali island, Ten-Men Art Exhibition Tour of Sarawak 1965, Chen Chen Mei with her artist brother Tan Teo Kwang and teacher Lim Tze Peng, Ten-Men art excursion to Pulau Sekudu.
Chen Cheng Mei, Untitled, 2009
60 x 60 cm, oil on canvas
Chen Cheng Mei, Untitled, 2007
62.8 x 49 cm, oil on canvas
“My travel and creative concept is to reveal the colorful life of the countries I visit. In the process of creation, I get unlimited joy and happiness. I want to dedicate them to Singaporeans, hoping they can get similar happiness from appreciating art or engaging in art activities.”
– Chen Cheng Mei, 1990, during her solo exhibition in Mexico
Although Ten Men Art Group fall into obscurity after 1968, the type of cross cultural interaction continued till Chen’s late career.
Indian farmers, Johor rubber workers, tea pickers, The Great Wall of China and even Sri Lanka street market, Chen dedicated her entire lifetime into transcribing the nature to Singapore audience.
“Only by getting close to nature, can we improve nature, and so is art.” – Chen Cheng Mei
By observing the natural landscape and light in various places, and strengthening the study of color, can the color of the picture be bold and harmonious, and the composition be unique.
Chen Cheng Mei, Untitled, 2008
75 x 48.5 cm, oil on canvas
Chen Cheng Mei, Ikan, 2007
60.5 x 52.5 cm, oil and rubber collage on canvas
Almost all of Chen’s oil painting were signed with a monogram, which is the Chinese character ‘Wang 王’ in oracle script, the family name of Chen’s husband.
Traditional one may think for a female artist who had lead on so many artistic quest to assume her husband’s surname. Even so, ideogramically, Wang also means king. It takes a rebel attitude and confidence to sign her work off as the work of a king!
More directly, Mr Wang, a manager at the Lee Rubber Co Ltd, inspired Chen to combine rubber with paint to depict the swarm of fish often observed in Malaya island. It was also a known fact that, Chen did not paint to make a living, Mr Wang provided a well-to-do living, and hence the limited amount of works seen in market. This further adds to Chen’s stand to not commercializing her paintings for public taste and insisted to paint only subject matters that she felt inspired with.
An eager learner, Chen also studied under Singapore calligrapher Tsue Ta Tee to learn Chinese calligraphy writing, Chen was confident that line forms in CC art can help to improve her line execution on her paintings.
Perhaps, this is also one of the main reason Chen kept the tradition to sign most of her works in oracle script.
Chen Cheng Mei, Les Gravures Rupestres III, 2003
41 x 48 cm, etching on paper
Chen Cheng Mei, Sunrise Rajasther, 1998
35 x 48 cm, etching on paper
Chen is also highly competent in printmaking. After arriving in Paris, 1969, she made acquaintance with Stanley William Hayter, the father of modern printmaking, who taught her a method to make multi-coloured print. Fascinated by the artistic technique, she moved the printmaking machine back to Singapore and was later placed in LaSalle Academy of Art. Chen later became an active member of the Printmaking Society making several work based on her oil paintings. With etching technique as the base, Chen uses different acidic chemical to vary her tonality and line texture for her prints.
Chen Cheng Mei, Hatchings, 1991
45 x 35 cm, etching on paper
Chen Cheng Mei, Sunray, 2000
61 x 35.5 cm, etching on paper
In printmaking, compositions are developed in stages. Artist works in a variety of print technique like lithography, etching, and drypoint. The process begins with working on a copper plate, artist will etch on the surface of the waxed plate, then dabble ink onto the recessed area, after which they run it through the press, where by the ink that remains in the recessed area get transferred onto paper. Artists will then examine the sheet of paper, and make adjustments to the plate and runs it through the press again. During this process, some prints are trial proofs of the evolving state before fine tuning into the final compositions that artist decides to issue in an edition. Usually, the editioning of prints during evolving state are inscribed as W/S (working state), T/P (Trial proofs) or A/P (Artist Proofs).
Chen Cheng Mei, Images from Les Gravures Rupestres III, 1994
35 x 45 cm, etching on paper
Chen Cheng Mei, Cranes, 1996
35 x 45 cm, etching on paper
With limited number of works circulated beyond the artist’s studio, being a female born in an era so deeply bounded with traditional values, like many other female artists, Chen is mostly lesser known due to the lack of exposure and exhibiting platforms. This sale 33 Auction is proud to bring forth to you 6 oil paintings and 9 prints by Singapore female artist Chen Cheng Mei.
Chen Cheng Mei, Marine Biology, 2004
48 x 61 cm, etching on paper
Chen Cheng Mei, Waiting for Bus, Gambia, 1998
30 x 36 cm, etching on paper
Chen Cheng Mei, Table Mountain (Africa), 2004
35 x 39 cm, etching on paper