Nurse (护士), 1965, Oil on Canvas, 83.5 x 64 cm
Mention nurses and one might think of Richard Prince’s famous series “Nurse Paintings”, where the artist painted over pulp romance novel covers. The series then went on to inspire Louis Vuitton’s Spring/Summer 2008 collection, as 11 models decked in sexualised versions of nurse uniforms walked the runway. Koeh Sia Yong’s painting similarly puts the spotlight on the nurse uniform, though with a remarkably different tone. Utilising broad strokes of solid colour, Koeh paints an austere nurse. Her uniform is clean and crisp, reminiscent of the likes worn by the nurses of Kandang Kerbau Hospital in the 1960s. The nurse cuts a strong silhouette with the cinched red waist, a saturated streak of colour against the otherwise sterile hospital green and white. With a hand tucked into her pocket and a pen clipped into her breast pocket, the viewer is drawn to the nurse’s pensive gaze. The slight arch of her eyebrows almost feels like a furrowed brow, becoming indicative of a slightly annoyed expression at being kept from her work. In the light of the current pandemic, the way Koeh memorialized the nurse reminds us of how much our healthcare has progressed. In its own way, this 1965 painting manages to reach across the divides of time to connect with the viewer.
Through these paintings, the viewer sees how Koeh follows the Nanyang style, blending Western painting methods with local themes. Notably, his focus on the Singapore River and the quays along it demonstrates a desire to memorialise Singapore as modernisation gradually transforms the once-familiar into something strange.