Sunday April 26, 1998
Patrick Ng - Strokes of Wry Humour
By Ooi Kok Chuen
He was a wunderkind of the Wednesday Art Group (WAG), a motley group active during the late 1950s/early 1960s.
When only 24, this then government clerk trumped a field of 200 which included established names, in a major South-East Asian art festival competition.
His Spirit of Earth, Water and Air (1958), an oil on board magnum opus, which is in the National Art Gallery's permanent collection, is nonpareil for its mystical synthesis of the complex regional belief systems and its extraordinary vision. In recent years, this painting has been flaunted in major thematic shows from Singapore to Japan.
Highly innovative and naturally gifted, Patrick Ng Kah Onn, incomprehensively, remained an enigma despite all the acclaim.
Accounts are sketchy of Patrick’s 10-year meteoric rise from the time he seriously took up art in 1955, and more so in his last 24 years which he spent in London, where he died of liver cancer at the age of 57 in June 1989. To a small circle of closest friends, Patrick was highly individualistic, determined and helpful.
"He was a complex person. Introvert in some ways, yet lively and spontaneous. Gentle and kind. Quite a strange personality. He’s exceedingly frugal but not mean," said Peter Cocquerel, 60, who was Patrick’s landlord, friend and later brother-in-law (he married one of Patrick's twin sisters, Yong Cheng). “He's mildly eccentric. Sometimes, he would go to a play dressed in Malay costume. He had a photographic memory. He read Jawi, and though English educated, learned to read and write Mandarin (when in London).”
Cocquerel also remembered vaguely that Patrick had also written a play which had been performed. “He was a voracious reader and very much influenced by William Blake,” said Cocquerel during a visit in Kuala Lumpur recently. He now lives in Virginia in the United States. A Malaysian critic under the pseudonym A.J. once described the Blake influence in Patrick’s art as “metaphysical fantasies of flora and fauna, surrealistic organic abstractions...”
Added Cocquerel: “He was also stubborn. Nothing could shift him (when his mind was made up). He wouldn’t go back to teaching even for one day though it would have qualified him for disability pension (when he became ill).”
“When he was diagnosed with liver cancer in March 1989, he would not go for treatment,” said Cocquerel, adding that Patrick was working at the Department of Pensions and Social Security for some time.
When the pain aggravated because his cancer was fairly advanced, Patrick was warded at the Hammersmith Hospital.
“The doctor told him that he had possibly six months to live, but he refused to have a liver transplant. He was back in my house in his last few months. He had a more or less total recall. At first, the doctors tried alleviating the pain with blocking injections into his spinal column, and then they put him on diamorphine elixir by mouth. He came home, and I, with the help of nurses who came in twice daily, looked after him until his death on June 24.
“The last few weeks were very peaceful due to the morphine doses which had been gradually increased. Both (Yong) Cheng and I were with him when he died.”
The selfless devotion Cocquerel gave Patrick through his turbulent years is very touching. Patrick could only repay with some of his cherished possessions - a small suit of paintings done in England. Yes, Patrick did continue painting, but in fits and starts, for his cultural horizon had expanded.
“In England, Patrick became more interested in classical music and the moving image. He was a member of the National Film Theatre and had an abiding love for the cinema. Opera was his other passion,” recalled Cocquerel, whose trim built and natty appearance may have something to do with his discipline during his modeling days in the 1960s and a spell in the early 1970s. Cocquerel revealed that Patrick's favourite composer was the Russian Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75).
“He painted occasionally following his graduation but stopped painting after teacher training. In 1975, however, he painted a bit more but his emphasis had changed though his style didn't change much,” he said.
The 1975 phase shows a strange clump of giant tubular, tentacular stumps as if in upward thrust ‘receiving’ in its ‘womb’ a bent branch, the palms drooping downwards in capitulation. On top, penile-like green icicles are framed against apple-shaped openings of the cavernous structure. This imagery is retranslated in the top reverse triangle from an oil on canvas done in 1974, a year after his breakdown, which consists of a patchwork of emotional vortex of sharp geometry and confused patterning. Such grotesque mock-fantasy, even surrealistic, vein runs through most of his England works.
Strangely, a similar vein and spirit can be found in the works of his mentor and WAG founder, Peter Harris, who lives in Malmesbury, near Bath. In another 1975 work, as if as a close-up, two naked figures are locked in an awkward entanglement under a monstrous outgrowth.
In what is, according to Cocquerel, Patrick's last painting done in 1979, three figures, barefooted and garbed in uniform white-lace blouse and chequered green sarung, dominate a coconut plantation landscape against a mock pointillist rice-grain backdrop.
The artist, similarly attired, is depicted in the background clinging on to a coconut trunk, while a figure on the right foreground is engrossed playing a long flute. Patrick seemed to relish in such self-deprecating humour. As far back as a 1955 Self-Portrait With Friends (oil/acrylic on board), he depicts himself in a red-striped shirt unbuttoned at the navel playing an invisible violin as if it was a guitar, with a comical figure lurking behind with a keris on one hand. The backdrop of wall hangings and mat is filled with Art Deco designs all rendered flat, making the living room drama more ludicrous.
His figures are of caricaturist slight, attenuated forms with unusually long slender limbs - a style he refined since his Menjemur Kain (1950), with those women in their kebaya and transparent brassieres. The figures staring out make this look like a Malaysian Demoiselles.
Patrick left for London under a British Council-administered scholarship known as the Sino-British fellow trust, now defunct, to study at the Hammersmith College of Art and Building (then Chelsea College of Art and Design’s Lime Grove branch, 1964-65). He continued his studies at Southlands Teacher Training College (majoring in fine art and textiles, 1966-68).
“Patrick must have taken a room in my house in late 1966 or early 1967 when he was studying at the Southlands. He was formerly living at the Methodist International Hostel in Bayswater,” said Cocquerel.
“He had a successful career in art school and was popular with the secondary school teenagers for his unconventional way of teaching. He was nicknamed Mr Spock (after Leonard Nimoy in the sci-fi Star Trek television series).
“The schools were very rough. He taught there until 1972. But he became schizophrenic and had a breakdown because of staffroom politics. He got caught in it and started having hallucinations in 1973.”
It was decided that he returned to Malaysia for a one-month break. It was the first time he returned home since he left for England. Cocquerel accompanied him back and met Yong Cheng for the first time.
“Back in Malaysia, he made a courtesy call at Frank Sullivan’s Samat Gallery. He was still not very well and was taking medication which made him rather confused at times,” he said.
“Patrick meant to go back to Malaysia but decided he didn't really want to go back. He was stimulated by the lively scene in London - opera, theatre and art galleries - and decided to stay put.”
Cocquerel also revealed Patrick’s prescient document on Malaysian art - an unpublished graduation thesis on four Malaysian artists - which he edited. His study focussed on artists Chuah Thean Teng, Syed Ahmad Jamal (now Datuk), Long Thien Shih and the late Nik Zainal Abidin (1936-93). Patrick also painted his own counterpoints to the more outstanding works by these artists.
“This document was painstakingly written on large sheets of art paper in Patrick’s elegant copper-plate handwriting,” said Cocquerel.
Born in Kuala Lumpur in 1932, Patrick received his secondary education at the St. John’s Institution and Victoria Institution (VI). From 1956 to 1963, he taught at the Methodist Girls’ School in Kuala Lumpur, and later VI. He first attracted attention when his Batik Malaysia, which illustrated Malay kampung damsels hanging their sarung on a washline, won the top prize of RM3,000 in the Manila competition. He was then a clerk at the Federation Establishment Office. He blossomed under the guidance of Peter Harris and artists with WAG. He was secretary to the group who met once a week at the Selangor Education Department office. In 1962, his painting of a violinist was presented to the Art Gallery of Victoria, Australia, as a gift from the Malaysian Government. His work was also selected for the Arts of Malaysia exhibition held at the Commonwealth Institute in London in February 1966.
Patrick had his first one-man show at the British Council in Kuala Lumpur in March 1963. The fifty watercolours, pastels, wax, charcoal and Indian ink were based on his visit to India that January and revealed the influence of M.F. Hussain and Jamini Roy.
Despite few known works, Patrick’s stature in Malaysian art goes beyond his Spirit painting. His art which imaginatively incorporated elements of the rich Malay craft tradition, especially textiles, foreshadowed by two decades a surge of Malay ketuanan introspection during the mid-1980s. It did not matter that he was of Chinese origin. His cross-cultural foray was significant even in the 60s before the May 13, 1969 racial conflagration. He signed his paintings in the Jawi script and once joined a Malay dance group.
In at least one painting, he even experimented with plaited pandan as his canvas, which was radical for a work done in 1950 when pioneer artist Yong Mun Sen was still painting thatched stilt huts and coconut trees. His works were among the earliest earnestly in search of the Malaysian identity in art. And he was then self-taught, at a time when the first wave of Malaysians who had formal art tutelage in the West were just returning with all kinds of new fangled ‘-isms’!
The reassessment of his art in recent years was hardly surprising. Books such as Modern Artists of Malaysia (Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka) and Visions and Ideas: Relooking Malaysian Art still did not flesh out Patrick the man, the artist, the myth.
The life of Patrick was still a faint blip on the contemporary Malaysian art map even as his Spirit travelled to Singapore (Modernity and Beyond: Themes of South-East Asian Art, 1996), New York (Contemporary Paintings and Traditional Adornments, 1996), and Fukuoka (The Birth of Modern Art in South-East Asia - Artists and Movements, 1997).
It was because of all these accomplishments that a Patrick Ng painting that came into the market was mopped up for the higher end of five-digits despite this economically restrained time.
But a comprehensive evaluation of Patrick’s art is long overdue.
From the V.I. Archives
Patrick at Klang Gates (1962)
Patrick in the VI art room
Patrick's two most famous pupils - Ismail Mustam and Hajeedar Majid