3 @ Wei-Ling Contemporary

For his third solo exhibition, Sean Lean utilizes a presentation format – the triptych – as a starting point to explore subject matters in painting. The exhibition statement describes the triptych as “a pictorial convention within the Christian tradition where a central panel is adjoined by two subsidiary but associated ones…” In a concise and descriptive essay, Line Dalile writes that the artist “…sought to challenge and disrupt its inherent symmetry. Size, style, and treatment of individual panels vary in attempt to create a space of tension and ambiguity, yet still maintain a unifying line of thought, both visually and conceptually, between the three panels in each triptych. Tension is inherently built into the format of the triptych, with each individual panel vying for attention or complementing and illuminating the other, if not both.”

3 (2018)

Case in point: ‘3’, with its left panel a trippy combination of overlapping pink, blue, and yellow circles; the alphabets ‘T’ and ‘W’ seemingly etched on a rusted rectangular centrepiece; and a shortened right panel – approximating the golden ratio – depicting a facsimile of the Googled definition of triptych.  The images read from left to right like a visual sobering process – from high saturation pop, to a mundane wash of brown, to language described on a desktop screen. Another form of sobering – to plunge into the depths of dark water – takes place further down the same wall. ‘carpe diem’ pairs one scene of a splashing good time, with a Scorpène-class submarine underwater. Seizing the day, has never meant more to voting Malaysians accustomed to financial scandals and corrupt politicians.

carpe diem (2018)

Sean’s playful takes continue with ‘Prosperity’, the diamond-shaped centrepiece flanked by two scroll-like accompaniments, presenting a crossover of visual cues from Western painting and Chinese tradition. Instead of an antithetical couplet, the pair features paintings of a chubby kid riding a merry-go-round, and sumptuously-painted pig heads hung on a skewer. Is prosperity signified by children, mechanical horses, or abundant food? Is the cost of prosperity, the freedom to capture scenes representing absurdities in modern life? Pleasant live human and gruesome dead animal are not equated or juxtaposed, but act as a visual counterpoint around the title concept. As indicated by the yellow and pink colours in the 福 panel, positive and negative spaces are equally filled in a titular word, and it is up to the reader's interpretation for making individual meaning.

Prosperity (2018)

Confidence & determination, and the opposite traits of doubt & deliberateness, are on full view in ‘Self-Portrait’. Sandwiching all-black and all-white portraits of the artist’s father and himself, is a painting-sized vitrine of certificates and awards. Both portraits appropriate mugshots, as the artist depicts both individuals as equally responsible and guilty, for this relationship gulf. Are achievements on paper good enough to bridge human relationships? Personal desolation turns to news-worthy outrage in ‘BANG BANG’, which depicts a monk holding a rifle, and ready to shoot at a gallery of sitting Tibetan monks. Separating the shooter from his target is a quote from the Theravāda Buddhist scripture Vinaya Pitaka, where choice letters are highlighted in red to visually connect the gun-shaped triptych. The face-off marks a moment of silence, and questions what it means to practice one’s religion.

BANG BANG (2018)

Sean also customizes the “3” format to approximate his subject in ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom’, that dominates the opposite wall. The effectiveness of this formal play is maximized in this floor-to-ceiling work, which towering scale recalls too the origins of the triptych in Western religious painting. A stunning profile painting of a golden seated buddha forms the base, while its head’s silhouette is rendered via a pattern mimicking the buddha’s coiled hair. William Blake’s proverb completes the middle, yet the work’s fuzzy top and visually-appealing bottom, betrays its own sage-like quote. Will the abundance of iconography inspire a reflective viewer, or has stylistic clichés occupied the overzealous mind? This thought persists in the interpretation of ‘Copies’ hung nearby, which three panels feature a print, a painting of the print, then a scan of the painting.

Installation snapshot of The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom (2018)

While the artist is obviously broaching questions of authorship in ‘Copies’ – recall Gan Siong King’s “The Horror, The Horror” project which the artist painted 12 instances of Alan Turing’s portrait – the subject matter here makes for more compelling contemplation. The identical image in all 3 panels, is a portrait-sized cut-out of a video snapshot, taken from Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Andrei Rublev. Played by Anatoly Solonitsyn, the great medieval Russian orthodox icon painter (whose most famous work is ‘Trinity’!) is characterized as a single-minded artist confronting his social reality of chaos & repression. The independent will and to do what one desires, seem to describe Sean too, whose autobiographical imprints are evident in his oeuvre. When an image has been transmuted across multiple mediums, what is left of it? When a painter paints a world divorced from his reality, is he a responsible artist?

Copies (2018)

In retrospect, “3” ranks among the top painting exhibitions I have seen to-date in 2018. Sean’s paintings always project a luscious tone – which colourful underpainting can be seen in work-in-progress snapshots on the artist’s Instagram – while its glossy flatness denote Ivan Lam’s influence. Displaying only eight triptych works, the attractive aesthetic and experimental verve coalesce into a brilliant exhibition, where a variety of themes from East-West dichotomies to political events, can be read more simply as painted structures and formal arrangements. Working exclusively with Wei-Ling gallery only, the artist has not made a splash in the Malaysian art scene, but he deserves far more recognition. After “3”, one wonders what will be the theme for Sean Lean’s fourth solo exhibition – perhaps death (‘4 死’ in mandarin)?

Self-Portrait (2018)