For Soh Boon Kiong, art is more than just an act of self-expression

For Soh Boon Kiong, art is more than just an act of self-expression

In Elans Radieux, (A Surge of Radiance), the artiste extraordinaire Soh Boon Kiong shows how art is about the power an image evokes

WHILST most artists’ existence leans towards culture-critique, this self-professed ‘kampung boy’ who received his art training in France chooses to make works with an idiosyncratic stamp – massive canvases swollen with abstract imagery, the landscapes of his mind.

His latest solo exhibition after a hiatus of three years has been much anticipated, and a homecoming of sorts – he first exhibited at The Alliance Francaise twenty years ago with a body of work created in his studio in Amagasaki, Japan.

The artist explains, “A Surge of Radiance are paintings I made during the Covid pandemic. It is my way of looking at a bleak situation and turning it into something positive, that this too shall pass and we must always have faith. My work is filled with energy. They’re my poems.”

Soh is a colourist, and a masterful one at that – and although many marvel at the bursts of hues in his paintings, he is adamant that they are not ‘pretty images’, it is more profound in meaning.

“I get embarrassed when people say I paint about happiness. Of course everyone is entitled to their opinions, but I want viewers to delve deeper. I still remember my first solo exhibition in Malaysia. It was held at The Australian High Commission in 1993. Back then my works leaned towards the minimalist persuasion, they were ‘quiet’ and pensive.

“I have grown since, both as an artist and as a person. So many considerations are taken on how I utilise paints and configure colour schematics – everything needs to fit, to come out strong without appearing exaggerated. The colours harmonise, they never ever clash. All is meticulously calculated but not in the mathematical sense.

“My paintings contain both positive and ‘negative’ elements, and I find this dichotomy interesting. Nature is vast and so are our minds. Perhaps that also explains why my works are usually larger in scale.”

There are many words to describe Soh’s paintings, but what immediately comes to mind is ‘sensual’, ‘romantic’ and a hint of longing. The artist has not been home to Japan since the pandemic hit. He has not seen his family. But he is never lonely.

Visits to his studio in Jalan Ipoh were always intensely wonderful. The high ceilings, open air concept, (as in there are literally no partitions – walk the wrong way and you’d fall two storeys) paintings stacked from wall to wall, sparse yet elegant furniture, the wind billowing, the whirring of an electric fan, sunlight pouring in, intoxicating aroma of traditionally brewed tea and something one rarely sees in an artist’s studio – a fully equipped kitchen.

Soh is a self-taught chef. Only a handful know of this. The word ‘chef’ is used rather than ‘cook’ because what appears from his various woks are delicacies conjured from a magician’s hat. And fewer know that the artist is seriously hilarious, charming and charismatic.

He creates dishes in the exact same manner as he paints, with sheer passion. There is a delicate symbiosis. There is euphoria. He would pause in front of the fridge, a glint in his eye.

The menu varies and comes in small courses of four, five, sometimes eight. From meat to vegetables to oil, every texture is in concordance, the colours compliments and complements. He takes the time to describe every dish, how it comes ‘alive’ and where the inspiration originated from.

A Surge of Radiance is about cosmic union, about connecting the dots, a rewarding insight into a meditative style of expression. There are many thoughts in his mind, and each one is carefully thawed and transferred into his work. It takes anything from two weeks to three months to complete a painting.

He stops when the voices become loud, he makes his monthly visit home to Kuantan, to Teluk Chempedak/Jalan Gambang where he grew up, and where his mother lives. Every morning Soh would ride his bicycle up and down the coast, taking in the same sights he fell in love with as a child.

He would return to his studio and resume painting, always with fresh eyes and a new appreciation for life. “I can paint a field in blue. It is still a field – just seen from an artist’s perspective. Every line in my painting is never random. There are no accidents. I either paint them straight unto the canvas or use a tilting method. The flecks you see are musical notes, strains from Chopin perhaps. The bursts of hues can be seen as the changing of seasons, the skies, the seas, rain, and the calm after a storm.”

Soh is a romantic at heart. Dark feelings, resignation and doomsaying are never parts of his psyche. In fact, his works are the very antithesis of gloom and doom. But no, they are not ‘happy’ pictures.

A Surge of Radiance, simply put, is about how he sees the Universe, ever moving, eternally evolving. ‘Our Hope Together’ and ‘For your Beauty’ are odes to his wife and children. ‘Haven’ and ‘Tribute to Sakura’ is that longing to be reunited with those he loves.

His personal flair and ingenious compositions are unabashedly sensual, as seen in how he gently layers colours the way a lover caresses. These are golden atmospheres and acute observations of life’s cycles. His paintings are about particular moments, his own abstract truths. There are no hidden messages or secrets. And each painting has a sultry fragrance – of rare flowers, morning dew, molten fire and the deepest mossy earth.

“I do not just splash colours on canvas and call it a painting. There are direct references. It is like painting the soul, the spirit, the energy. My works are never hurried. I do not paint for the sake of having an exhibition. It is a ritual. There is a Chinese saying – the artist is the painting and the painting is the artist. It is all interconnected.”

Violaine Dupic, Director of Alliance Francaise of Kuala Lumpur enthuses, “We are honoured to have Soh Boon Kiong back again in The French Film Festival of Malaysia this year after his last solo exhibition during the opening program of the first edition of The French Art Festival 20 years ago. Truly marvellous.”

At the time of this writing, Soh’s daughter had just arrived from Japan. “Just prepared breakfast for Lin Chan, and she wants to go for a walk in the park nearby. And later, a five course dinner.”

In tribute to Elans Radieux: –

“A brush of evening clouds

The perfume of flowers in the darkness

A harp melody

Accompanies the chanting of poetry

The moonlight flows like water”

– Yu Qingzeng –

Elans Radieux runs until August 4, 2022. The artist will be conducting a private guided curatorial tour on July 23 and 24 at 2pm. For more information, please email [email protected]

source – The Vibes

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