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Soliloquy, Valentine Willie Fine Art, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 2011

Silent Conversations

Eva McGovern

(This essay was published at catalogue of Gan Chin Lee’s 2nd solo exhibition : Soliloquy, VWFA, 2011)

For decades now, the Malaysian socio-political condition has been a rich source of artistic inspiration. Fuelled by the paradox of multiculturalism artists continue to celebrate and criticise what is undoubtedly the country's biggest strength and weakness. Although Malaysia is promoted as truly Asia', filled with diverse cultures and peoples, the inability of government to transcend destructive racially divisive political policies results in a never-ending state of tense oscillation between progress and regression. Malaysian artist Gan Chin Lee continues to be inspired by these issues through a classically inspired type of portraiture and genre painting that adds to an ongoing artistic conversation about Malaysian identity. For Soliloquy, his first solo at Valentine Willie Fine Art, Kuala Lumpur, Gan employs a common device from theatre and literature to collect his thoughts. A soliloquy is a lengthy speech or monologue by a main character to discuss their feelings, dilemmas, and motives for their actions. Shakespeare is filled with many of these famous speeches such as Hamlet's To be or not to be?. However, rather than a verbal or textual proclamation, Gan instead presents a visual sequence of angst, longing, and frustration on the Malaysian condition. Negotiated by the artist's own personal experiences as a Chinese Malaysian, his portraits and genre paintings reveal the feelings of the rakyat through the uniquely local setting of the mamak stall as well as other scenes from Malaysian daily life. These highly emotional portraits of the artist himself, the people he has observed as well as his friends and family present a subtle combination of anxiety and optimism on the future of the country. Mob, Kedai Kopi Sungai jarom and Silent Majority are developments from his previous exhibition Fragment Defragmentation that once again looks at Malaysians in the mamak stall. A fond destination in our cultural landscape, the mamak is a site to discuss, lament and laugh at the state of the country. Through its inconspicuous familiarity it has become a 24 hour comfort zone for Malaysians to enjoy food as well as debate their frustrations amongst the safety of friends. Gan keenly observes these sentiments through numerous moments of sketching, discussion and interaction of unknown protagonists as well as the artist's friends, colleagues and students across Kuala Lumpur, Klang and Petaling Jaya. With relatively little social outlets for teenagers, the mamak is one of the few places to go for entertainment. However, rather than choosing moments of lighthearted amusement, Gan presents glimpses of boredom and stagnancy. His figures in Mob seem wistful and confused as they waste time before going home. The nine youths in Silent Majority depict a powerful solitude of young people lost in unknown thoughts of existential angst or simple moments of listless boredom whilst staring into space. Further emphasizing this sense of isolation Gan punctuates his painterly realism with exaggerated perspectives and multi-paneled images that create an undulating experience that is at times dreamlike and disorientating. He states that the collaging of multiple scenes is a process of fragmentation and recomposition in order to create an 'incomplete painting'. This reflects the limitations of whilst also attempting to liberate the viewer from this by presenting different perspectives in one work. However, he goes one step further in Silent Majority and isolates his figures entirely into single portraits creating a sense of remoteness and seclusion, alluding to their own private monologues. Off-setting his multi-paneled works, these nine portraits create a further feeling of fragmentation as part of the constellation of artworks throughout the exhibition. Such elements reflect moments of segregation and distance between the different races, cultures and religions or the country that unfortunately have the potential to lead to misunderstanding and social division. Although Soliloquy is a personal lament about fragmented moments of isolation in Malaysia, by purposefully including older works from Gan's practice, he inserts important notes of optimism and brightness. Barber Shop in Little India presents a sensitive portrait of Indian Malaysians in Penang. Proudly staring back at the viewer, with hints of smiling faces, this group of men and children declare their individuality whilst the Chinese characters on the shop front's glass window insert them within the network of multicultural Malaysian. Skillfully rendering their features, he presents a dynamic and active exchange between subject and viewer. Lonely Friend is another classic example of portraiture that can be found throughout the artist's practice. Depicting a young woman sitting in an interior setting, she stares directly at the viewer with the mirrored cupboard revealing the contents of her room. The textures of her lace blouse and cardigan showcase the artist's strength in realism and the subject's stoic gaze hints at a direct but contemplative nature. This elegant connection and appreciation of the human spirit can also be clearly seen in Grandma, a portrait of the artist's grandmother. Peacefully sleeping in her rocking chair the artist lovingly recreates the design and folds of her clothing, and his sensitive use of light and shadow conveys the contented serenity of this important member of his family. Gan's observations and reflections reach a powerful crescendo in Crying Soul. It is here that the concept of the soliloquy comes to fruition most clearly in the exhibition. As a self-portrait it reveals the unsaid thoughts of sadness, anger and loneliness experienced by the artist through swirling brushstrokes and an expressive use of colour. The creases and contortions of his face echo the misery in his eyes, contrasting against a light turquoise background. It is a painful image filled with sorrow and indicative of his continuing frustrations about the Malaysian condition. Stripped of all idealism, this searing portrait presents a lost soul searching for answers. In a personal statement Gan states: "I went alone to Beijing for my postgraduate course. My life there was a simple three-step formula of eating, thinking and sleeping. Life was lonely but full of thinking; it was taboo to use the same color plate as other students, So it was all a thinking process. In order to draw skin one had to understand the skeleton, as such things must not be judged from phenomenon but from its essence or nature. My loneliness stimulated my thoughts in order to analyze my life from a bigger prospective. like many others I cherished the opportunity to study overseas, but/ thought to myself why is that so many others are allowed to enjoy government sponsorship while some are not? Is it fair or is it rooted in a jealousy created by different communities in one nation?' Although highly personal and rooted within the rhetoric of Malaysia, Gan Chin Lee's poetic visions are produced through a keen understanding of dramatic artistic influences from Antonio Lopez Garcia and David Hockney through to European Grand Masters such as Velasquez, Caravaggio, Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi. Such an informed approach allows Gan the vocabulary to play with motifs from art history and popular café culture scenes whilst developing his own unique approach to technique and subject matter. His commitment to draftsmanship and understanding of perspective and proportion has produced a confident approach to form and composition. However, it is the human element of his work that resonates most clearly with audiences. His portraits or visual conversations about Malaysians create a personal monologue on the status of the country that is filled with dilemma, but, despite these frustrations there still remains faint glimmers of hope as the politics of race and identity continue to unfold across Malaysia.

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