Wednesday, June 6, 2012

JOHN TIONG What do an art director and an old artist in a new gallery have in common? They both wish to paint their lives in the best possible colours, to bring out the best in each other. The third gallery of Purplehouz Fine Arts in Jalan Chantek, Petaling Jaya, which opened recently s just a stone’s throw from the second gallery - opened last year - close to the residential area in Jalan Gasing. The owners, among them, Navinder Gill, have chosen to take art away from the commerical complexes so that art can better appreciated, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Gallery director of the lattest addition to the Purplehouz, Ee Soon Wei, who is active in the theatre scene says art seems to be the next best thing to do after theatre. He has made a career switch from printing to an art dealer. It is killing two birds with one stone - what better way is there for an art collector than to be a partner in a business where art is all what that matters? The Australian graduate has collected paintings over the last four years, including those of luminaries such as Datuk Chuah Thean Teng and Khalil Ibrahim. He would love to collect more of the local artists, and of course introducing the best to his clients. The first art exhibition of the new gallery features 41 pieces of artwork of 83-year-old Penang artist Lee Joo For, who surprisingly has been living in Melbourne since the early 70s. Apart from paintings, are his monoprint and linocut. What makes Lee’s paintings intriguing is his use of animals and celestial objects to convey his thoughts, such as horses, bulls, sun, moon, and tigers. In some of his paintings are also the anguish he went through when three of his five children were stricken by muscular dystrophy and many others, the unfair treatment of women. Lee’s art is a blend of western techniques, calligraphy, and his love of sketches. He uses acrylic, oil and chinese ink on canvas and paper but is equally adept in presenting his works in mixed media on paper. This exhibition, 40 years of Lee Jor For, till June 30, is rare in that it offers a broad section of the work of Lee over the last many decades. Lee who has been described as “underrated” by those in the art world is one of the few major artists born in the 20s who are still living. What makes his paintings worth collecting is that they were painted by an artist who has also achieved distinction in the theatre world, and an accomplished poet. Lee thrice won won the Malaysian Drama Festival Best Playwright of the year from 1969-1971 and was also the Best Radio Playwright Singapore, 1969. So owning his works has so much more of that premium touch and exclusiveness. One day, one can even auction them away in the land of the Aussies. Lee’s work tells us a lot about his involvement in theatre arts. Many of the paintings are so dramatic, they feel like scenes of a play on the stage. This is especially so in Our Pride and Sorrow (1998) where Lee painted himself and wife praying for their children who were stricken by muscular dystrophy. Both are kneeling while a magnanimous looking Christ shows some children a path. Below the left of a cross, an eye, that of God, looks on. Bulls are seen almost riding over some helpless children, as if fate is working against them. Lee uses his bulls to depict the negative forces of life. Lee’s sun or moon represent the Creator, and he uses them in many of his paintings to show how humanity cannot tear themselves away from the one above. Horses especially help translate his idea of humanity effectively. The animal embodies the grace of a woman, steadfastness of men and the supreme intelligence of the Creator, he said. The bold and breezy strokes Lee used for his horses evoke the overpowering energy found in the animal especially when it is geared up for action. The horses always carry that subtle message of the human struggle for what he desires, how he harnesses his will, sometimes in an almost chaotic manner, like horses. Lee said of them: “My horses are humanity. They stare or glare at you or throw sidelong glances or look back at us, accusing us of our inhumanity to man.” In Lee’s strokes, one can also experience the exploding energy one sees in humanity. This is especially so in the piece Horse Looking Back (1966). The well built physique especially the legs and muscles are so all so well executed, one could feel the animal racing across the paper, its head turned almost in an involuntary haste. Another spectre of the of horses can be felt in the Sarong Women on Horses (1944), where four women are portrayed as proud handlers of horses, representing the men they wish to control. The swirl of their hair and the fluid strokes for horses against a background of fiery orange red sky, yellow earth and sun succeeds in evoking the dilemma these women face as they try to control men. The allure of the painting is also in the women who are all in sarong and baring their shoulders. The dramatic world of men, women and animals is held together by God represented by the sun above the women. The other horse paintings not to be missed are Bold Woman on Horse (1977), Dead Heat Race (1969) Horse Energy (1973) and Racing Horse Profiles (1985). One other painting that clearly elucidates the inexorable forces and energy in animals is the Restless Tigers (1993). Restless Tigers draws out the fearsome nature of tigers through a maddening swirl of bold black strokes, so that the animals are all claws, canines and raised tails, all ready for for a deadly assault. The ferocity of the animals in their strip fortresses screams out to us on a a red background used to great effect. Two paintings that reveal the soft spots of Lee towards the women, especially their subjugated position, shine through in Interior People (1979) and Eating Desperation (1998). In the former a woman is featured in a foetal position, suggesting woman being trapped by the traditional bonds and cultural prejudices. In the latter, subservient women are seen serving a table of men as they eat. Some women were painted wailing. Lee said of what influenced him to paint the picture; “I saw exploitation within my own family with my brothers using my sisters as slaves. I saw them eating more than they should and leaving so little for my sisters.” Pictures in Fotostation: 1. Lee Joo For’s Bold Woman on Horse painted in 1977 2. Sarong Women on Horses which symbolise women trying to control their men. 3. Horse Looking Back (1966) shows Lee’s mastery in executing the horse. 4. Interior People shows a woman trapped in a world where prejudices work against them. 5. Gallery director Ee Soon Wei posing with one of Lee Joo For’s paintings. in W:\Life & Times\6june2012 slug...Joofor Caption: One prized painting of Lee Joo For...Restless Tigers (1993). slug...Joofor2... Lee Joo For (left) (please cut to show only Lee Joo For as I dont know who the other man is).

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