In-Between @ Richard Koh Fine Art

Gan Chin Lee writes at his web log (in 藝術與現實的念想之間, and translated by this author), “I am a painter, whose chief concern is to resolve painterly issues. My artistic expression is in the form of social realism; I still believe in realism and its distinct expression, which moves me deeply.” Seven diptychs draw immigrants within a localised setting, along with a single wall presenting captioned photographs and news snippets that support the artist’s documentation process. The contrast immediately stands out; as a reviewer describes, “…works in In-Between are divided into two: a large section drawn and coloured in a more realistic manner, and an accompanying piece presented in a more raw “work-in-progress” style.” Like wine with good food, the majority of pairings are forceful. Why are the diptychs not a problem when I first saw the exhibition?

Self and the Other (2013-2014)

Representing people is Chin Lee’s intent, and figures are the dominant subject in his paintings. A couple of older creations display a hesitancy that informs his execution in later works. For ‘Reunion Island’, nightlife on two island republics are stretched into wraparound scenes via shop lot fixtures. Street walkers and neon signs indicate seediness, while most persons are blacked-out in a failed attempt to emphasise via negation. In ‘Self and the Other’, one shabbily drawn old man and a transparent figure, confuse the viewer. Nonetheless, the white-skinned figure leaning at a stairwell acts as the catalyst in this exhibition, and imparts a focused virtue to Chin Lee’s portraits of foreign workers. This evolution manifests in ‘Phantom Existence’, where suspicion towards dark-skinned migrants escalated in the form of public abuse, during the last General Elections.

Phantom Existence (2014)

If overlapping figures are too literal, and blackened heads are visually simplistic, what can a painter do to present the under-represented? Chin Lee’s deliberate use of white to identify his subjects is jarring at first sight, yet its aesthetic and metaphorical impact complement the artist’s precise compositions, in highlighting a common Malaysian prejudice. In his works, one always sees the second largest figure first. Scale is an obvious concern, evident from jotted notes on the exhibited sketches. Focal points on the horizon and diagonal planes are effective illustration tools; when a crowd emerges from a building in ‘Islamophobia is a New Form of Racism’ (originally titled ‘Self and the Other III’), colour tones are utilised to depict visual depth. Looking at the red lining of the larger-than-life character’s eye, such detailed flourishes anchor painted pictures in realism.

Islamophobia is a New Form of Racism (2015); Close-up snapshots below

In the Russian and Chinese traditions of social realism paintings, depictions of an objective reality within an idealised commune is utilised to promote workers’ ethics. Echoing this ethos, labourers in a palm oil plantation are captured in ‘Breadwinner’, but its elevated overseer viewpoint infers a power hierarchy at play. Sunny reflections on the ground describe a beautifully drawn landscape, and illuminate also the general context here – migrants toiling in cash crop plantations for a living. Sound familiar? The exhibition’s largest diptych ‘Post Colonial Encounter’, dins this point home further. Extending from one arms-on-waist man at a distant house, wooden houses line the sides of paved roads in a new village. An uncle in denim and a migrant mother with her children, go about their business in overcast weather, so what’s the problem?

Breadwinner (2014-2015)

Painting on jute denotes a gestural interpretation of the in-between, an Edward Said term that describes the complex differences (including cultural disparity and economic exploitation) between colonial powers and colonised subalterns. Its manifested result – the hybridised identity – aptly describes Chin Lee’s concerns in his restating of the current situation within one’s communal history. In the work-in-progress panel for ‘Post Colonial Encounter’, a lady stares out at the viewer with a forlorn look on her face. Such moral statements are made also in another two diptychs, which point to one’s struggle in reconciling lived experiences with media-fuelled popular opinion. Social integration of migratory peoples inevitably results in conflict, and introducing an ethical viewpoint dilutes realistic observations. 

Post Colonial Encounter (2015)

There are no such issues with ‘No Place for Diaspora’, a vivid portrait of an elderly Rohingya sleeping on the sidewalk, accompanied by a top-down depiction of travelling boat people. With its direct reference to a humanitarian crisis, this work caps off my realisation that this exhibition is made up of a collection of standalone paintings. Social integration is cited as an exhibition theme, yet Chin Lee’s accomplished creations are still subject to its presentation context within an art gallery. Social realism as an art form supports revolutionary narratives for political mobilisation; in a Bangsar house, work-in-progress panels display simple contrasts and painterly effects that attract individual collectors. Here, a painter negotiates in between his personal concerns and making marketable works. If acculturation is relative, who or what is the dominant mode?

No Place for Diaspora (2014-2015)

“A critical stance against the absurdity of social reality has always been a characteristic found in works by many ethnic Chinese and Indian artists in Malaysia. They have adopted a creative path to explore, construct, reproduce and deconstruct the history of their immigrant forefathers in order to cope with their identity crisis. However, Gan adopted a different path. He diverted his attention to the current crisis and the influx of a new generation of migrants in Malaysia. It is in the eyes of these communities that Gan fills the gaps of his past.”
- Painting as the Path to Social Landscape, Nobu Takamori (trans. Chen Shaua Fui), exhibition catalogue for In-Between (2015)

Snapshots of painting close-ups, sketches, and photographs at "In-Between" (2015)