Leo Hee Tong’s practice is rooted in the shift towards abstractionism of his generation and many of the Singapore Second Generation artists. His mentor, pioneer artist Cheong Soo Pieng, was himself highly experimental and often abstractionist, but Hee Tong found his own path in his granular, textured canvases couched in strong reds, blues and ochres, particularly after his immersive studies in Japan from 1973-1974. His oeuvre centres around formalistic variations on a handful of favourite themes, one primary subject being his flocks of doves and pigeons. Gathered or in flight, one sees mainly a blur of wings and tails flitting across the pictorial space in a textural sea of paint and gesture to express a feeling of moment or place. The Nanyang heritage is also evident in Hee Tong’s subject matter. Deriving from his pioneer progenitors’ fascination with Bali, we observe offering-toting women, umbul umbul (traditional Balinese flags) and Balinese boats in fishing villages, but abstracted into their elemental shapes and multiplied to create a riot of forms, hues and surfaces. Hee Tong’s semi-abstractions capture sufficiently familiar shapes to make his work recognizably Southeast Asian, but his expressionist tendencies and devotion of large swathes of canvas to empty (textured) space continually advance the dialogue between Western and Eastern modes of artistic expression.
Born in Singapore in 1940, Leo Hee Tong studied from 1957-1960 at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, and furthered his art education at the Ashiya Art College in Japan from 1973-1974. He has participated in countless exhibitions around the world, including Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Monaco, Bahrain, France, USA, Brunei, Macau, New Zealand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Philippines, UK, China and Korea. An illustrious member of the Singapore second generation artists, Hee Tong has garnered Special Awards at the National Day Art Exhibition (1975) and NAFA Alumni Association (1980), several Dr Tan Tsze Chor Art Awards from the Singapore Art Society (1983, 1987, 1994, 2005) and no less than 9 Distinction Awards at the UOB Painting of the Year Competition (1982-86, 88, 1992-94). He has been collected by several private and public collections including the Istana, the Singapore Art Museum, the Fukuoka Culture Foundation, the Macau Culture Charity, the National Arts Council, Singapore, Bank Negara, KL, Arab Asian Bank, Bahrain, DBS, UOB, National Library of Singapore, Monetary Authority of Singapore, CPF Board, Singapore Telecom, Singapore Turf Club, Singapore Airlines and innumerable other institutions.