Szeto Keung (1948-2011)
By Kathy Zhang
Chinese-American artist Szeto Keung passed away September 5 due to coronary heart disease at Bellevue Hospital Center in New York. He was 62. A veteran painter in the New York art community, Szeto exhibited extensively in Taiwan and Hong Kong, becoming a mentor to numerous young artists and students. He will be missed by many.
Born in Guangzhou, the provincial capital of Guangdong, China, in 1948, Szeto Keung traveled to Taipei in 1969 to study art at the National Taiwan Normal University. After graduating in 1973, Keung enrolled at the Pratt Institute in New York where he received his MFA in 1979. Since his New York debut with O.K. Harris Works of Art in 1982, Keung spent the next two decades working almost exclusively in the US city.
Originally trained in the Lingnan style of traditional Chinese ink painting in Taiwan, which stresses realistic observations of nature, and entering SoHo’s art scene on the heels of the American Photorealist art movement, Szeto acquired an intensive background in realism. He belonged to a loose group of China- and Taiwan-born painters working in New York during the 1970s and early 1980s, which included the likes of Han Hsiang-Ning, Hsia Yan and Yao Ching-Jang, who came under the influence of Photorealism. However, unlike many who adopted the maturated genre to create vivid verisimilitudes of New York neighborhoods and their inhabitants, Szeto differed from his expatriate counterparts in subject matter and extreme stylistic dualism. Instead of street scenes, he painted singular mundane objects, using trompe l’oeil realism, onto contrasting abstracted backgrounds. These heady juxtapositions embrace the expressive possibilities of seemingly divergent styles.
In his acrylic painting Heart (1987), what appears at first glance to be detritus appended as an afterthought to a purely abstract painting, is upon close inspection a meticulously rendered, life-size facsimile of a matchbook labeled on the cover with the tourist logo “NY (heart),” and on the book’s lip with the artist’s name (“SZETO”) and date of production (“87”). A strip of masking tape fastens a matchbook to the painted tarpaulin; yet a moment later one realizes that this object too is in fact a painterly illusion. Szeto sited loneliness as a source of inspiration. “I don’t like America,” he said, “but I’m used to it. I’ve lived there for a long time. And yet I’m lonely. But I think this is a good way to think about the meaning of life.” Heart (1987) seems to speak of the artist’s sense of rootlessness living in New York. The matchbook, this ostensibly personal article, like its owner, is inextricably imbedded into a chaotic cityscape bereft of any real sense of place.
Since 1989, through the 1990s and 2000s, Szeto replaced his imagery of thumbtacks, discarded notebook paper, envelopes, and calendar tear-outs, and began painting organic motifs. In particular he became fixated on the metaphorical nuances of the rose. In like fashion, economizing on the textural surfaces of burlap, linen, or masonite wood, Szeto’s abstractions became increasingly complex. Compared to earlier paintings in which the abstracted backgrounds remain relatively static, we see in such works as Fall (1997-98) a heightened interest in the play between colors and brush applications that compliments the compositional narrative rather than merely acting as a counterpoint to the realistically depicted forms.
From a bundle of dried roses seemingly “sticky-taped” to the top of a tar-black and grey background, a shriveled rose petal drops into the lower right corner of the painting Lamentation (1989-90). This work, made in response to the Tiananmen Square Massacre in June that year, prompted a drawn out investigation by the artist into the transience and cyclicality of the human soul. Often with somber titles such as Remembrances 1 (2006), Melancholy Untitled - 4 (1999-2000), or Requiem 7 (2001-03), Szeto’s latter works, more personal than political, appear as eulogies to the fragility of sentient life in the face of devastating cosmic forces. In the painting Remembrances 1, what appear to be frothed waves of mud and tar tear apart a single rose, its petals and stem strewn violently across the canvas. Conversely, other pieces such as Butterfly 2 (2009), in which a vibrant rose bursts forth from the erupting surface of a red planet, seem to rejoice in the phenomena of life emerging from primordial chaos.
Over the past month a number of memorials were held in the artist's honor: in New York, at the Chinese American Arts Council on September 17; in Hong Kong, at the Eric Hotung Studio, Hong Kong Arts Centre on September 18; and in Taipei, at the Eslite Gallery on October 10. An exhibition commemorating the artist is currently being held at O.K. Harris Works of Art, New York, until October 22.
Fellow artist and one of the organizers of the Szeto Keung memorial service in Hong Kong, Pak Sheung Chuen recalls: “Szeto Keung once said of a Rodin sculpture: ‘This work is titled Walking Man . . . So why doesn’t he have a head, or hands? Because he wants to devote himself to walking.’ After saying this, he walked behind the sculpture and pointed out a damaged section, saying, ‘This is a wounded body.’ He was just like this body, devoting himself to his aims, fighting his whole life for the art he believed in.”