By Tan Yong Jun.
Chua Chon Hee can only place the year the printing press entered her house down to the decade, but she is precise in the month it occurred — it was the first half of the eight lunar month, sometime near the Dragon Boat Festival, with the fragrance of bamboo leaf-wrapped rice dumplings wafting through the streets. Though she had never received formal instruction in printmaking besides some forays into woodblock printing in her student days, she was curious about the visual effects the press could create. Having just unwrapped some dumplings, Chon Hee arranged some bamboo leaves on a plate and ran them through the press. Out came her first series of fine art prints.
For an initial series, these prints are remarkably finished. The folds and crenulations of the bamboo leaf are translated through the printing process into rich textures; an interplay between intaglio and relief. These are textures that can only be found and worked with, not devised within an artist’s mind and expressed with a knife. The bamboo leaves evoke a false sense of compositional stability, quickly disturbed by the appearance of a shape or shade that is at tension with the regularity of the leaves’ rectangular shapes.
Chon Hee is candid about her process:"I’m not really interested in sophisticated printmaking techniques. I prefer to simply arrange the materials in an interesting way and work with their textures." Indeed, Chon Hee’s earlier works make use of the simplest of intaglio approaches, such as collagraphy and etching on PVC; more developments like sophisticated drypoint, lithography, and mezzotint techniques would emerge later, as encouraged by her mentor Chng Seok Tin.
Elaborating on her earlier works, Chon Hee explains:
"I was always fascinated by textures, both natural and manmade. Everything has textures, even our skin… I enjoy the unexpected effect these materials allow. These are not visual effects I can plan and envision beforehand; they are the result of a conversation between these objects and me."
Through these works, I was able to discern an artist who prefers to respect and work with the raw and organic character of her media, guiding but not forcibly shaping them into the forms in her mind. This is also evident in Chon Hee’s home, where old architectural elements and even a Boddhisatva from the previous occupant - a Buddhist shrine - remain, a vital part of the structure’s biography that continues on with her occupancy.
In printmaking as in life, Chon Hee makes the most out of the materials she encounters through the passage of life, utilising at times stray threads, plastic bags, even silverfish-attacked strips of paper. Through her manipulation, we are confronted with an unexpected side to these everyday items that, besides being shown as formalistically interesting, are also completely direct and intimate refractions of Chon Hee’s life and art. Pointing at a series of prints that utilised leaves from her own garden, she reflects:
"This manner of printmaking is also an extension of my meditative practice… I attempt to glimpse at a cosmos from within a single leaf."
窥探#1 (To Probe #1), 2017, Intaglio on paper, 56 x 38 cm
To Chon Hee, every item has a story. All items in her house bear marks of their previous lives, marks that are respected and cherished by Chon Hee, who sees herself as only the latest of a line of custodians; even her workbench was passed down from a retired woodworker. More so than any other material, plants and botanicals are where her respect for the individual biography of objects are the most pointed. No trip to her home-studio will be complete without a quick walk among her plants, which feature a bodhi tree grown from a seed from Bodhgaya, mahogany and garcinia saplings germinating from foraged seeds, and a maple tree brought back from Taiwan. One quickly appreciates that, to Chon Hee, the value of these plants is not only ornamental but autobiographical.
Gesturing towards a series of prints where leaf textures are imprinted on shimmering gold or silver paper, Chon Hee reminisces:
"When I was young, I would pass by a massive bodhi tree on my commutes between school and home. After the rain, water droplets would collect at the tips of the bodhi’s heart-shaped leaves and shimmer in the light. This image stayed with me for the rest of my life. Here, I attempt to recapture that image, and explore how light as evoked through the metallic paper changes how we perceive the texture of leaves as it changes from day to night, from far to near… the tree in Changi is no longer there but I hope its beauty continues to resonate in these prints."
Speaking of another series of works, Chon Hee explains: "These are printed on paper that predated the Second World War. I wanted the character and history of the aged paper to shine through as much as my design."
It is perhaps unsurprising that Chon Hee is also an avid collector of leaves. On her walks, her commute, even her travels, she would keep an eye out for fallen leaves that interest her and collect them, perhaps one day becoming the basis of her sculptures or prints. "I intended to just walk about and sketch every leaf I see," Chon Hee said as she unrolled some drawings she made of leaves in Paris, "unfortunately the foreign land was too mesmerising." And so, she finds it most expedient to bring these leaves back home, to study and admire at length and leisure. "These leaves are from Taiwan, collected when I was studying printmaking there then; I found their thin and slender shape curious… arranged in this way, they contrast nicely with these blocks of colour."
Flipping through these old prints, it is clear that the interaction between dots, lines, and planes was not foremost in Chon Hee’s mind. Rather, she was reading episodes of her life, forever embedded within the bleeding of ink on paper. As she declared: "they mean nothing else… these prints are simply a reflection of myself!"
窥探#2 (To Probe #2), 2017, Intaglio on paper, 64 x 38 cm
"I’m not sure if you noticed, but I’ve gone through a depressive period. I felt strongly that there was something I wanted to say, to express, but I could never get it out… I could not find my way out," she revealed as we looked at a framed print in her living room. "Chng Seok Tin suggested that I try to take in the atmosphere at Sungei Buloh and see if it could inspire me. After some trips, I felt that I knew what I wanted to express and started etching directly onto some PVC sheets. When I pulled it through the press, I knew exactly what my next steps should be."
Eschewing more intricate cross-hatchings and textural approaches, Chon Hee’s evocation of the wetland landscape makes use of masses of lines that reveal a genuine gestural intent — gestures executed not for formalist interest but as the cathartic rebirth of an artist’s painterly instinct. I noted that broader frames of visions such as landscapes are not common in her oeuvre, which favoured life’s minutiae. She agreed, recognising this period as some of her most unusual and intimate expressions:
"Though these may look like real landscapes—in fact, you can discern some features of Sungei Buloh here—they are simply some “things” I would like to express but don’t know how to. The idea of the landscape is just a way for me to express myself and may not reflect an actual site."
And so, perhaps the landscape was simply there for Chon Hee at the right time and place and become a convenient vehicle for her to communicate emotions and ideas that she still has no words for. I wondered if the Song-dynasty genre of ‘one river two banks’ landscapes that thrived in the potent mystery of negative space had any bearing on her practice, but these are the neat and tidy dialectics often conceived in the mind of a third party, estranged from the process of creation. Moving forward, Chon Hee developed the iconography of landscapes into a point of departure in her practice. Her perspective turned less direct, her images mystical, and her intent more layered.
In the series To Probe 窥探, Chon Hee hid a world of magic and intrigue behind hard-edged forms, forcing us to tilt our heads in curiosity, attempting to get a glimpse of the hidden landscape.
"This series was borne from the realisation that despite my attempts to search for inspiration extraneously, I found in the end that the most important factor in artmaking is the “me” residing in my heart… these landscapes I encounter, I would often wonder if they still exist when I am not around. So, all I can evoke is the feeling of searching for a landscape, rather than the landscape itself. I feel that this is a more truthful take on the idea of a landscape."
I take these works to be some of Chon Hee’s best, or at least those I enjoy the most. Somewhere within these wild and potent landscapes lies a passionate and dynamic heart, otherwise hidden within the form of a mild-mannered woman. In 2021, Chon Hee held her first major exhibition in decades — a two-artist show featuring her and Ben Loong’s ceramic works. This long absence from the exhibition scene is unusual for an accomplished and senior artist, and naturally on the minds of those getting acquainted with her practice for the first time. She explained: "Actually, for the longest time, I didn’t feel the need to exhibit. I am content with just creating art for my own sake. Look, so many of these prints are not even signed or titled, I genuinely thought that no other set of eyes will get to see these prints… looking back at them now, I am pleasantly surprised by a few of them, at how engrossed my whole being was in the process of creation. The 2021 exhibition was a good experience, I now hope to share my artistic labour with an audience."
窥探#3 (To Probe #3), 2017, Intaglio on paper, 56 x 38 cm
Regarding any advice she would give to younger artists, she paused to think, then said: "If you find joy in the process of creation and to share them with your friends, that would be some of the happiest moments in your life. About advice, I still don’t feel qualified to give any."
And so, I walked down the hill on a sunbathed afternoon, my bag full of begonia cuttings and a renewed appreciation for my friend and mentor, the printmaker and ceramist Chua Chon Hee.
窥探#4 (To Probe #4), 2017, Intaglio on paper, 64 x 38 cm
Chua Chon Hee (b. 1960, Singapore - ) is a multidisciplinary local artist, who works extensively with ceramic, ink, and printmaking. Her art possesses the characteristic of a humble organicism as she strives to relate her artistic practice to traditions, while simultaneously making her explorations on art significant in a contemporary manner. Chon Hee continually plants herself amidst lush greenery and nature, which stimulates and enthuses her art. In addition, her works are rooted in the Zen thinking of "being in the moment", and Chon Hee chooses to portray these inspirations using physical objects like leaves or clay in their raw form. Thus, her works are entrenched in the traditional, yet shifts easily back to modernism if needed.
This interview was conducted in 2021. Artist's quotes are translated from Mandarin and edited for clarity.