Cheah Yew Saik Sketchbooks

Art Review About Cheah Yew Saik Retrospective

By: Kavitaanjali Muniandy, Sarena Abdullah

On 11 November 2019, we visited the Cheah Yew Saik Retrospective exhibition at Penang State Art Gallery (PSAG) as part of our class visit. Who is Cheah Yew Saik and why am I writing about him? Cheah Yew Saik is one of Malaysia’s re-known artists. Born in Sungai Petani, a small town in the state of northern Kedah, he was educated at Han Chiang High School in Penang. In 1961, he was offered to study at the prestigious Singapore’s Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. He later furthered his tertiary education at Stoke-on-Trent College of Arts in England in 1965. This art exhibition displays Cheah Yew Saik’s 150 paintings with various types of artworks over his more than 30 years of career span under several themes such as “Touch of Nature”, “Nostalgia”, “Conundrum of Space and Time” and “Enigma of Objects”.

The moment we stepped into the art gallery, I could sense a strong, and a good vibration at the exhibition. The space exuded calmness, despite the exhibition space is interspersed with arrays of colours radiating from his works. The first thing that attracted my attention was his biography which helped me to understand him and his artworks. As I started looking at his artworks, I came across beautiful paintings of landscapes, each capturing breath- taking sceneries of mountains from different angles and views. The colours used were lively and it made me feel peaceful. Next, as I walked to the other section of the gallery space, I discovered six of his sketchbooks that were displayed in a small confined glass box. It was really exciting to see the process of how he developed his ideas on his sketchbooks. We were lucky as we had a guided tour by PSAG staff. From the guided tour and the catalogue of the exhibition itself, we learned more about the Cheah Yew Saik the artist and how he was inspired to produce some of the artworks discussed here.

Under the theme, “Enigma of Objects,” Cheah Yew Saik featured life objects such as fruits, flowers and everyday objects which were stylized or semi-abstracted to impart an allegorical ambience on the canvas. The arrangement of how the objects were captured in the painting has its hidden meaning, usually relating it with the reality of his living. His fishing village sceneries under the theme “Nostalgia”, depicts how Cheah tries to convey his message of how much he wants unity among different races in this country and in  many ways remind him of his childhood. At another part of the gallery, Cheah’s exclusive creation of ceramic sculptures was exhibited. One of the sculptures includes the oxen and cow figures as remembrance of his father who was a butcher. The exhibition also includes many of Cheah’s eye catching sceneries that he encapsulated during his journey travelling in Europe, transferred to the canvas. Cheah sometimes spent a couple of hours even on a 50-storey building just to wait for the sun to set in order to capture the right atmosphere of Paris as soon as the Eiffel Tower lighted up. This itself shows how dedicated Cheah Yew Saik was towards his art making.

 Mesmerised by and humbled in the magnificent landscape of Tibet, Cheah Yew Saik has recreated the view of snow capped mountain in “Terrain of ‘Roof of The World’ II, Tibet” (2016). The thick impasto technique reflected his instinctive yet skilful brush strokes and the effect of textures. This artwork could also be seen as an important visual travelogue that crystallised during his field trip to exotic destinations abroad. This oil painting represented the beauty of nature and the mountain that could be seen as symbolizing the constancy, permanence, motionlessness, and its peak spiritually signifies the state of absolute consciousness. The former college principal explained that the mountains can tell a lot of stories, such as the coexistence between men and nature, which he thinks is a topic worth exploring. According to him, drawing mountain landscapes freed his mind from work. One of the elements that were used in this painting is line such as curve, horizontal, fine, thick and slanting lines. These lines altogether form the shape of a mountain that are almost neutral hues — brown, white and grey and cool colours such as green and blue. As matter of fact, the mixture of these colours forms lines and textures which gives a lively look to the mountain landscapes and create a soothing, calm, fresh, conservative and yet, to certain eyes, it could be overwhelming as well.  

 Cheah Yew Saik’s works truly inspires the audience and especially art students. As a whole, I do admit that Cheah Yew Saik is indeed a versatile artist who is adept at creating artworks in plethora repertoire of mediums and techniques. He is indeed a great artist and a pride of our nation. Through his artworks I have learnt a lot and it feels truly amazing to be a part of the exhibition visit.