Chee-Keong Kung likes to say the act of painting is an “exercise in being still while our daily lives frantically rush by … a quiet center within the tornado.” While that may be true, his work on view in the exhibit “Lines/Edges” in the Terrace Gallery at BlackRock Center for the Arts in Germantown, promises to thrust viewers straight into the eye of the tornado and spit them back out. And in this case, that’s a very good thing.
BlackRock’s curator Anne Burton described the artwork as “filled with dynamic motion that visually captivates our attention and conjures an emotional response.” She was fascinated with the “layers or swirling brush strokes [that] suggest dark storm clouds colliding with hurricane-like intensity, and his hundreds of sharply drawn ink lines and crisp geometric forms seem to capture the moment when shards of glass burst forth following a destructive blast.”
With all this swirling and slashing, one might think Kung is going at his paintings like a madman. But in fact the Arlington, Va., resident actually takes the slow and steady approach. He may start by languidly washing the canvas with swirls of pale blue acrylic paint and adding a single line or shape. Then he stops and moves on to one of the four or five other paintings he is working on. Or sometimes, he returns to it another day, amazed at how different the work looks after 24 hours.
Making art has become a family affair, with Kung’s daughter often seated beneath his worktable creating her own art installations out of paper clips and tape. The 9-year-old offers her own critiques like “Don’t add anymore, or it needs more orange,” he said.
Strangely enough, a spare bedroom transformed this architect-turned-real estate developer into an artist-after-work. Growing up in Singapore, he was active in the art scene, but that ended some 20 years ago when he came to the U.S. to study architecture at the University of Houston and eventually, earn a master’s degree in real estate at Cornell University. Making a living took precedence. Still, even during those frenetic years, Kung kept abreast of art trends. And then one day, while considering how to put the extra room to better use, he decided it was time to create a studio and make some art.
Kung began by creating mostly figurative work, landscapes and trees, but everything changed once he took a class from David Carlson at Mclean Project for the Arts. Carlson recalls asking Kung to bring in images that influenced him and that he then could use as inspiration.
“Most of the visuals were of atmospheric interiors that were quite beautiful, but somehow seemed difficult to translate since the images were complete, and didn’t have an opening for a translation into something that was more Chee [Kung],” Carlson said. “For a few weeks, he grappled with the painting, but the results fell flat.”
Kung then brought in some drawings of intricately drawn machine parts that were very different than the work he had been creating. “Since Chee had an architectural-based job, I could see a new dynamic between energy, line and building parts. It seemed perfect to me,” Carlson said.
Kung remembers the moment Carlson looked at these machinery drawings and told him “This is you.” With these three words, Kung took off. “I had been satisfied with my work, but now I was liberated. I wasn’t confined by what is recognizable,” he said.
Over time, Carlson saw similarities to the drawings of [New York artist] Julie Mehretu, as well as Chee’s “formalistic ideas about space and tension of a building exploding or being blown apart by the weather. I thought he was working out some latent power he could express that he was unable to do so at work.”
During the next few years, Kung created a body of work and began submitting to shows. “I didn’t want the work to simply remain in my studio,” he said.
The list of exhibits has grown rapidly and in 2015, his work was chosen to be a part of “Billboard Creative” in Los Angeles. Along with other artists, his work was blown up to gigantic proportions and placed on a billboard along a busy L.A. intersection. Huffington Post reporter Edward Goldman was impressed, calling it an “exploding abstract.”
Although Kung insists that he brings no overt political or social message to the work, he thinks it is understandable that people may read into it. Instead, he emphasizes the “tension between the natural and material world.”
Kung was pleased that Burton asked him to connect with the community at his opening, first with an art talk and then an interactive experience. Together, visitors and the artist created two large canvases, which also are hanging at BlackRock. The experience was so successful that another group art project is planned for the end of August.
“Lines/Edges,” a solo exhibition by Chee-Keong Kung, is on view from Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., through Aug. 27 at BlackRock Center for the Arts, 12901 Town Commons Drive, Germantown. Kung will return to draw and paint with visitors in the gallery on Saturday, Aug. 23, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., at the BlackRock Open House. Admission is free. Call 301-528-2260 or visit www.blackrockcenter.org.