the urban sketching of Ch’ng Kiah Kiean

November 5, 2012

One of the most entrancing aspects of urban sketching, as a global art movement exploiting the opportunities of the digital, is the sheer variety of approaches, aesthetic and technical urban sketchers deploy. My copy of line-line journey arrived yesterday and I’m absolutely thrilled to be looking at the work of Ch’ng Kiah Kiean up close and personal.

I’ll keep this post brief, but there are several key aspects of his very striking and seductive work I want to publicise. Copyright forbids me to illustrate visually the points I’m making, but check out his website and buy his books, especially if you’re as enamoured of pencil and monochrome as I am,  or if you’re interested in very careful observation or Deep Topography/sketching locally.

Format. We know that Landscape format is universally peaceful and serene, studied and considered; Portrait format is universally dramatic, confronting and imperious. Kiean aims to pacify the viewer; his vision of the Urban is that it is (or can be, or even should be) compatible with human activity, with the flat contours of land. His world-view is not about how high we can rise off the ground in our control over Nature, but how the world is but a line of lines and dots between a vast empty sky and a vast unknowable earth beneath us. There is in Kiean no inherent or culturally-determined battle between the human and Nature, no conquering of Nature as we see so often in Western urban sketchers. What I love most about Asian cities when I’m there is the way humans help each other and work with the environment; what strikes me most about Western cities is the cult of the individual, atomistic creatures of a master race disappointingly driven to control their environment.

Kiean uses an ultra-long landscape: 28x76cm in many cases. He starts with a small molecule of pattern and builds up transversely. There are no ‘limits’ consciously placed on the paper beforehand. Amoeba-like, the sketch grows across the page, from left to right in his case.

Whether we originate in the East or the West, we all pay homage (directly or indirectly) to our deepest ingrained sense of narrative. And that sense of narrative or narration is directly linked to the paper/book structures we consider ‘normal’: if you’re in the East, you relate to the Scroll, if in the West, you’ll relate to the Book of leaves, bound into signatures. There’s no way that a Westerner can create urban sketches using graphite pencils 6B-9B, as Kiean does, in a (Western) ‘book’ without smudging (at least not without a lot of fiaxtive); hence (and it’s linked to the exoticism with which Kiean presents himself to a Western audience) we have here long scroll-like leaves designed to be ‘read’, in the Asian way, as the scroll is rolled out. Kiean displays a wonderful sense of calm and serenity, almost like a Chinese philosopher before his desk – he’ll spend two hours plus meditating on his subject, unlike the rest of us desperate to dash off a sketch in Portrait format. Some Western urban sketchers reach beyond their narrative DNA, which is why many of us finding the work of Heaston and Capecchi fascinating, both deploying the panorama and that Scroll-shoehorned-into-the Book format, the butterfly sketchbook.

Framing.   Kiean’s landscapes (and urban sketching challenges our notions linked to traditional Landscape as a genre) has no borders, nor even any suggestion of a border,  via a rectangular outline limiting the subject as in the case of Danielle McManus, for example. To this extent, they imitate traditional Chinese ink painting, but also connote an ongoing landscape-without-end.

Variety of mark-making. We know this variety is necessity for involving the viewer and Kiean uses it in abundance. He deploys long contour lines contrasted with wonderful geometric patches of ‘colour’ and lots and lots of lost edges. The line is never 100%-confident in the process; it’s always searching, always struggling. In the product becomes confident; the subject is scrutinised, hugely. There is a tremendous solidity in the use of repeated line, creating that indispensable element of all good sketching the creation of pattern. If there’s a problem with other urban sketching, it’s that it often comes across as something of a magical trick: swift, slick, illustrationist, not-struggled, not-thought-through. But, it can be argued, that might say a lot about what urban sketchers want from their cities: they want certainty, definition – translated into LEGO™-like penwork, stripped of ambiguity, redolent with triumphalist certitude.

Scale and Wit. Not obvious from his reproductions online is the wit conveyed in his sense of scale. Look out for adorable, tiny thumbnail motorbikes. This wit is also found in the context of the sketches; I fell off my chair laughing when I first read the titles of Kiean’s published work/exhibitions: lain-lain or lain2 in Bahasa being a play on the word “line” in English, especially linked to tjerita/cerita and journey (in fact, a wonderful East-West cross-over in this last title, line-line journey). His lack of capital letters shows both a studied subversion of Western convention as well as humility before his revered urban subjects and the stories he is narrating. He uses text because it’s there in the landscape, in signage of all sorts ; text is not imposed on the landscape as we so often impose our text narrative over our sketches in Urban Sketching.

Context. Kiean doesn’t set up a self-conscious opposition between Buildings and People or Building and Context as is so often the case in urban sketching from the West. They are all meshed together and combined, often to the point of blurring on the page. Is it a tropical rainforest, is it a city? We can hardly (especially from a distance) tell the difference.

Drawing ‘the air’. Anyone who’s spent time in an Asian city will recognise the way in which Asian urban sketchers very conscientiously and consciously capture the air quality in their sketches. One can invariably ‘feel’ the humidity, ‘feel the air’ in the sketches.

Monochrome. I’m (personally) enormously buoyed up by Kiean’s use of monochrome, even when the subject is enormously colourful. I feel enormous pressure to work in colour in my urban sketching. The illustrationist foundation, on which Urban Sketching is based, is big on colour. He plainly uses four or five shades of grey/black but their gradation is very obvious when looked at up close; he doesn’t physically blend his tones in the manner of urban sketchers in western Asia; they still retain a strong calligraphy (and actual text, either Asian calligraphy or an ‘imposed’ Western alphabet text – though clearly post-colonial and patinaed – is freely used in his work).

Focal point. Like all good visual art, Kiean leads the eye to a focal point. In J.M.W.Turner’s oil paintings (as I’ve noted here before), the eye too often jumps straight to the focal point (the lightest light next to the darkest dark). Kiean’s work is very special because the focal point is not always so obvious; the eye is taken on a subtle journey to the focal point, and trips up because there are often suggestions of several focal points.

Perspective and straight lines. As an architect, Kiean conveys an intuitive sense of scale and perspective, part of the joy of his work is that not all the buildings stand exactly 90-degrees to the land. We know that the key to Japanese gardens is the 90-degree angle placed on the land; we know that American cities began with the Chicago School’s mastery of the 90-degree rising from the land. It’s impossible to appreciate Japan or the USA without this. But in Kiean’s the buildings sway and bend like bamboo, not overly drawing attention to themselves, but subtley, the way we pass by buildings when viewed passing by.

Superstorm ‘Sandy’. It’s impossible to look at art objectively, without a sense of events around one at a particular time. Good visual art conveys not just ‘content’, but cultural context. I am looking at Kiean’s work today through the lens of contemporary events in America, arguably the ‘home’ of Urban Sketching. I’m not sure that many American urban sketchers will be so “sure” of their own linework, the certitude of their bricks-and-mortar world, after events like ‘Sandy’. You can see the frazzled uncertainty of Veronica Lawlor’s work in her depiction of 9/11; beyond simply being a very busy New York, you can feel American triumphalism starting to falter. The certainty of American sketchers’ world view may, in time, come to be undermined by events like ‘Sandy’, especially if seen as part of an ongoing trend after, say, Katrina, in that nation’s south. Amerika won’t be the first civilization to suffer from a combination of hubris and natural forces. The point about Kiean’s work is that his cities often look completely wedded to their physical environment – beyond post-colonial commentary (a thread which links Penang and Macau), they perfectly capture a vision of flexibility, uncertainty, of grasping tentatively, quite unknown in the West. We look at urban sketching of, say, Santo Domingo, not just as a serene, bright, sunny (if humid) day but subconsciously as a gorgeous Day of Grace recovering after one of their very frequent hurricanes or earthquakes. In an identical way, we look at Kiean’s Penang as being at one with its monsoon climate, the good and the bad. We know what monsoon is like: the rain at 1.30pm daily, the flooding for half-an-hour, then the water recedes and is gone. It’s a truly great urban sketcher who can convey not just Buildings and People, but challenge our silly supra-natural aspirational relationship in the West with weather, climate and the natural world.


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