A Hard Climb to Success

loading Blue Mosque Istanbul 伊斯坦堡 大回教堂 (91x122cm, 2015).

My Home Town - Padang River, Tapah, Perak, Malaysia 霹雳州打巴,我的家乡 (61x76cm, 1976).

Chinese Temple Malacca 马六甲神庙 (61x92cm, 1979).

KL Railway Station 吉隆坡火车站 (92x92cm, 1994).

THE twin tapestry of panoramic muralsized paintings on show stretched some 36 ft (triptych), and consisted of newly deeply etched portraits with impasto eddies. It is a fitting accolade for an artist whose prominence comes from his wish to capture landscapes of places and of the heart and soul through the landscape of faces.

The Peter Liew Retrospective at Wisma Soka Gakkai Malaysia encompassed some 42 years since his extant 1976 oil, Padang River (signed “Kavi” as an acronym of “Kar Wooi”), a placid river in his hometown Pekan Getah in Tapah at the foothills of Cameron Highlands. There are paintings of landscapes, architectural heritage, portraits and sketches which date from as early as 1978.

As befitting the impecunious conditions of his student days at the Malaysian Institute of Art (MIA, 1976-1979, diploma), where he subsisted on a diet of Maggi Mee, he had to apply his paint, some scraped from leftovers by other students, sparsely and sparingly with a desiccated veneer, but the strokes were confident and spritely.

After a horrendous “dark period” between 1977 and 1981, including a disastrous first solo (1981), Peter Liew got a job to teach at his alma mater and devoted 13 years to mentoring artist wannabes like himself.While there, he devised his own colour alchemy from research based on the theories of Chevreul and Itten. Off-work, he went on alfresco painting excursions with friends like Fung Yow Chork, Wong Jong Nong and later Chong Hon Fatt (later Dato). But he was more suited to having a one-to-one with Nature, where he could intuitively marshal all the elements of colour, terrain, space, vegetation, earth, water, wind, light and scent. He also helped out in the classes at the Montage Art Centre (1984-1996) run by his wife, Christina Chan, who is also MIA-trained.

From the mid-1990s onwards, there was no mistaking Liew’s career trajectory. He became known for his trademark style of sculpting his paintings with thick rivulets of pigments; the dramatic switch to the palette knife pushed to its fullest potential (he first used palette knife in 1985 in a work depicting the St Paul’s Church in Melaka, but dropped it); his painting excursions abroad; his taste of “dirty” colours imbued with an antique aura; in (March 20) 1997, a painting, Market Lane Penang, sold for S$6,500 (RM19,300) at Christie’s Singapore auction (his record was a premium of RM72,600, for a 1997 work, Golden Malacca, at the Henry Butcher Art Auction on Aug 8, 2010); his switch to the propitious signature “Peter Liew” on his canvas from 1997; and the success of his second solo, Passage: Journey Into Landscape, at Galeri Maybank (October 7-18, 1997).

Malacca River 马六甲河之一 (91x122cm, 2002).

San Marco, Venice 圣马可 (91x122cm, 2010).

Petaling Street 茨厂街 之一 (61x91cm, 2000).

Liew was on a roll: he decided to become a fulltime artist again, and he never looked back. From 1995, he started his world painting tour, having previously been only to Singapore and Thailand. Painting in different terrains with innate characteristics, climes and light helped sharpen his acuity, perspicacity and skills.

He conquered some 21 countries during his painting excursions, including Malaysia. Abroad, there were New Zealand, Finland, Australia, the US, Japan, England, France, Macedonia (even a solo at the Museum of Skopje in 2002), Italy, China (including his ethnic Hakka village of Huizhou), Turkey, Hong Kong, Hungary, Taiwan, South Korea, Indonesia, Switzerland, Mauritius, Germany, Argentina… at several venues and with unequal frequency in certain countries. At home, he stalked the unbeaten rural paths and the city nooks of Penang, Melaka, rural Selangor, Federal Territory and Perak.

Soft-spoken, polite and always with a smile, Liew strikes a different persona when on canvas, with a passion and lust for life: robust, rigorous and with raw pathos, energetic yet temperamental. It’s a virtuoso coalescence of all the visual and psychical inputs and outputs with a magical flourish, as he scoops paints with the palette knife with the flourish of qi.

His natural landscapes are more thanjust a slapdash of geographical flora, the panorama and the picturesque. The beauty of Nature prevails even in the vicious cycle of decay and rebirth, whether left to the wild or with human intervention, or worse, through human depredation. But it is in the colours that Liew is at his luxuriant best, playing with their harmony and contrast, in a range-bound spectrum of greens like emerald, jade, viridian, sap, spinach, celadon, dark olive or asparagus, or in an intoxicating brew with other colours such as yellow, raw umber, burnt sienna, magenta, lavender and blue.

In recent years, Liew has embarked on a large portrait portfolio with the faces simulating a psychological landscape of riven recesses and furrowed patterns, in a play of shadows and accentuations, revealing characteristic traits and shimmers of the Soul, paying attention to subtle clues about the personality painted, like the blue-stripes of the headdress of Mother Teresa, and the German colours under the eyelids of Karl Marx. The portraits do not play to the usual cult of verisimilitude with an over-flattering bias, but on the emotional and emotive wellspring from within, circumscribed by what the portraited did/does or was/is known for.

Malacca Christ Church 六甲基督教堂 (61x91cm, 1995).

S. Kadarisman, film director of Anakku Sazali.

Harbour 港口 (91x122cm, 2015).

The portrait cavalcade in a vertical format of 152cm x 122cm includes such greats as Mahatma Gandhi, Mao Zedong, Vladimir Lenin, Deng Xiao-ping, Lee Kuan Yew, Daisaku Ikeda, Steve Jobs and S. Kadarisman (director of P. Ramlee’s Anakku Sazali), and some local personalities too. The portraits, shown on the 7th Floor of WSKM, also spilled over to a parallel tributary exhibition called Faces, at the National Art Gallery, KL ( July 30-Aug 26).

Liew also builds up architectural facades with ghoulish slabs like crumbling dykes of landmarks and old edifices, with masonry draughtsmanship of awkward off-hinged shutter-windows and ornamental tiled roofs, and sometimes taking in the secluded nooks or quaint alleyways mostly of the old conurbations. His works on religious abodes, either of façades or interiors play on vibrant colours or brocaded embellishments of the gopuram in Hindu temples (even one in Mauritius, 2011), the vermilion shades of St Paul’s Church (Melaka, 1978) and the timber struts and truss system of the Cheng Hoon Teng interiors (Melaka, 1979).

His harbour front or pier works are spruced with brighter, more cheerful colours exuding Mediterranean hues in Tainan Fishing Boat (2010), and in other works such as Penang Jetty (2009), Port Louis in Mauritius (2015) and Malacca Harbour (2015).

It’s been a proverbial long and winding road for him since he sold his first work, of a 1978 outdoor scene in Bukit Bintang, KL, for RM260, but the destination is not final, because for Liew, the next painting must be better than his last. Today, a Peter Liew work goes for prices with three zeros added to the suffix, for a fairly large work.

The Peter Liew Retrospective ran from July 29 to September 2 at Wisma Soka-Gakkai Malaysia, KL, Ground Floor, Mezzanine, First Floor and 7th Floor (Hong Wen); and July 30 to August 26 at The Faces.

Ooi Kok Chuen, art-writer and journalist, is the author of MAHSURI: A Legend Reborn (Ooi Peeps Publishing), an adult contemporary fantasy “movel” (a novel conceived as a mock movie) spun from a local legend.

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