Malaysian abstract expressionist Eric Quah’s Penang retrospective


MALAYSIAN ARTISTS COLLAGE ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM

Eric Quah talks to Malaysian English daily New Straits Times about his 44th solo exhibition, a retrospective spanning his international art career of almost five decades that was held at Penang State Art Gallery in November 2011. We profile the artist and highlight his work.

Malaysian-born abstract artist and collagist Eric Quah in his studo. Image courtesy the artist.

Malaysian-born abstract artist and collagist Eric Quah in his studio. Image courtesy Penang Economic Monthly.

Past artists similarly honoured by Penang State Art Gallery with retrospectives include Quah’s early mentors and art teachers, Lee Cheng Yong (1913-1974, Memorial Retrospective held in 1996) and Chuah Thean Teng (1912-2008, Retrospective held in 1994), both distinguished pioneer artists in Malaysia. Since 2007, the Penang State Art Gallery has undertaken to make this an annual award to recognise an outstanding Malaysian Penang artist whose achievements deserve a major retrospective to educate and preserve for posterity. Past winners include Khoo Sui Hoe (2007), Lee Joo For (2008), Dato’ Tay Mo Leong (2009) and Ismail Hashim (2010). ”Retrospective of Eric Quah” features 68 of his paintings from 1967 to this year, including never before exhibited works.

Click here to read the full article on the New Straits Times website.

Eric Quah, 'Returning Home (归途)', 1967, oil on board, 70 x 50 cm, Image courtesy the artist.

Eric Quah, 'Returning Home (归途)', 1967, oil on board, 70 x 50 cm, Image courtesy the artist.

Humble beginnings

Quah started as an art teacher in the Malaysian Borneo timber town of Sandakan, where he held his first solo show at the local YMCA centre, as well as exhibitions at the Kota Kinabalu Chinese Chamber of Commerce and the British Council, Quah’s international career blossomed over four decades primarily in Australia, New York, on a scholarship to study at the Studio School in 1982, and China, where he completed a one year teaching fellowship at Nanjing University in 1985. Quah notes on his website,

My art reflects aspects of life, a passage through my affinity to the world around me and often looking through windows. Windows are entry points, from one side to another. It is like looking at another spectrum of things and in a different light reflecting glimpses of faces, flashes of places….

Eric Quah, 'Voyage Ahead', 2001, oil and collage on canvas, 180 x 120 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Eric Quah, 'Voyage Ahead', 2001, oil and collage on canvas, 180 x 120 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Life in Australia

Following his first international big break with a solo exhibition at the Seiko Gallery in Taipei in 1972, Quah went on to pursue his B.A. in Fine Art at Caulfield Institute of Art, now Monash University, in Melbourne, Australia. There, he met two important people who spearheaded his early career: Carlotta Bush, his muse and mentor, a trained artist and founder, in 1973, of Young Originals Gallery in Melbourne where Quah had a number of highly acclaimed exhibitions from 1977 to 1992, and Marjorie Ho, an architect who hosted Quah’s first Australian solo exhibition at her East & West Art Gallery in 1974 and who continues to represent the artist in Australia today.

Over the three decades Quah spent in Australia, he and set up and taught at the Chinese Language Department at Richmond College (1977-1991), became museum director at theMuseum of Chinese Australians, won a string of overseas and local awards.

Eric Quah, 'Lady in Distress (忧郁的女人)', 1976, oil on canvas, 150 x 90 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Eric Quah, 'Lady in Distress (忧郁的女人)', 1976, oil on canvas, 150 x 90 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

New York, New York!

Quah’s two years at New York Studio School from early 1982 to end of 1983 were a breathtaking “visual feast” of inspirational art works, with countless visits to museums and galleries in New York including the studios of American icons such as Jasper Johns and Willem de Kooning. He also squeezed in frequent trips to London and Paris. Dato’ Dr Tan Chee Khuan, guest curator for “Retrospective of Eric Quah”, notes in his essay published in the 336-page monograph that accompanies the exhibition, that during this period Quah “studied the works of masters like Giacometti, Picasso, Braque, Chagall, Bonnard [and] Matisse, amongst others, to look at the works’ textures, surface, application, real colours and the underpainting, breathing through each painting.”

While in New York, Quah changed the signature he used on his paintings from “Hiang” to “Eric Quah” and developed his own style of décollage or collage, a technique he discovered while helping to take down bill posters pasted onto the walls of his school buildings. As he peeled each layer off, successive layers of older posters were revealed, and this process was the spark that began his experimentation with collage. Says Eric Quah on his website,

I often express the importance of the journey by disregarding the boundaries that separate my eastern inheritance and my western training. I like to explode the logical order of issues, happenings [and] memories and allow them to blur, one into another, through conceptual collapse, the joy and pain exuding from the textural folds of pigments, the pasted and the peeled.

Eric Quah, 'Time (时代)', 1982, mixed media with collage on paper, 102 x 130 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Eric Quah, 'Time (时代)', 1982, mixed media with collage on paper, 102 x 130 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Time (1982), Quah’s diptych collage painting featuring the torn-up covers of numerous editions of TIME magazine, was featured in The Collage Handbook, first published by Thames and Hudson in 1983, and Quah was the only Malaysian contemporary artist included in this definitive guidebook. The authors, John and Joan Digby, commented that the artist’s work was “filled with the motion and the obliteration which he associates with American culture.”

Another close friend in New York, Margaret Leng Tan, a classical piano virtuoso known for playing on toy pianos, became a close friend and commissioned Quah to design the cover of her album Sonic Encounters (1982). Through Tan, Quah also befriended the composer John Cage, creating a tribute work called Four Walls in his honour.

Eric Quah, Sonic Encounter, 1982 , mixed media on paper, 51 x 71 cm. Image courtesy: artist.

Eric Quah, 'Sonic Encounters', 1982 , mixed media on paper, 51 x 71 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Experiencing China

Quah’s one-year teaching fellowship at Nanjing University, which ran from February 1984 to January 1985, was a stark contrast to the freedom and dynamism of New York. Nevertheless, it was a chance to seek out his Chinese roots, revisit the calligraphy skills he had learned as a boy from his Chinese-born father and draw inspiration from untouched and historical local landscapes. It was in China that he developed his collage technique to incorporate his own calligraphy on rice paper, with figures copied from ancient murals at Dunhuang, similar to what Zhang Daqian did before him. Spring in Jiangsu (1984) won the Australian Swiss Omega Prize in the same year.

Eric Quah, 'Spring in Jiangsu', 1984, oil on canvas, 42 x 76 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Eric Quah, 'Spring in Jiangsu', 1984, oil on canvas, 42 x 76 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

The Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing in 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in November of the same year moved Quah to create a flurry of works in the early Nineties. His “Cry Freedom” series, a set of 26 poignant works that recorded the events in Beijing were shown in a 1990 exhibition, while another fifty décollage works created between 1991 to 1993 dealt with the fall of the Wall.

Quah returned to China often after his time at Nanjing University to visit long-lost relatives, for research purposes and to participate in exhibitions, including a return to Nanjing in 2006 for a major solo exhibition called “This is the Moment” held at the Jiangsu Provincial Art Museum. All exhibited pieces were sold out, reflecting the enduring appeal of his work.

Eric Quah, 'Cry Freedom', 1989, oil and collage on canvas, 90 x 110 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Eric Quah, 'Cry Freedom', 1989, oil and collage on canvas, 90 x 110 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Return to Penang

Since 2003, Quah has been based permanently in Penang, Malaysia, where he lives close to his siblings and has access to his own studio and a neighbouring house that he uses as an art gallery. He is a passionate supporter of budding young artists and an active member of the vibrant Penang art fraternity. In the “Retrospective” monograph, Quah summarises his feelings about returning home.

I have completed two important series … in Penang, the “Padi Fields” and “A Boat”, [both of] which were exhibited at The Gallery @ Star Hill in Kuala Lumpur in 2007 and 2010 respectively…. Like a boat which was previously drifting from one to place to another, I have now found my harbour, which has also put me in a creative mood.

Quah’s works are held in government, corporate and private collections around the world including Australia, Canada, China, England, Hong Kong, Japan and the United States.

SC/KN/HH

Related Topics: Malaysian artists, museum shows, collage

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