With the bright colours and bouncing beach balls he incorporates into his paintings, you would be forgiven to think that all is rosy in his world. But instead of the unbridled, child-like glee that is apparent here, Wong Chee Meng comes across as being an observer of life who is simply an optimist thankful for the opportunities that come his way.
One of the incidents that made a big impact on him and played a role in rekindling his focus in art was an accident when he was a teenager that robbed him of perfect vision in one eye, taking with him the light from his world.
“Day and night became the same to me, my eye was covered and I stayed within four walls almost 24/7. I was irritable and felt frustrated at not being able to see details or grab things in front of me,” recalls Wong, 42.
The Taiping, Perak-born Wong retreated into his shell and barely talked to anyone during this time.
“I knew it was quite serious and I couldn’t feel happy at all,” he adds without looking too glum.
But as the weeks passed with more time for contemplation and self-reflection than he ever had before, this young man started to came to terms with the change not just in his life, but of the people around him.
“I started to appreciate what my parents and siblings were doing for me, how they arranged for my ‘special’ seat, cup, space for resting and so on. I was given priority and extra time during exams in school, too. I learned friendship. It was then that I knew every person we encounter and every event we undergo can be interconnected,” he muses.
Most importantly, the KL-based art lecturer adds, he witnessed the need for patience, to slow down where he used to rush.
“I also learned to be patient with myself. All these qualities helped me in my art-making later. I used to draw and paint before the accident, so I decided to truly focus on what I like and pursue this more seriously. I am grateful that the accident resulted in my eye being hurt and not me being killed, so I can love, be loved, and still paint today,” says Wong.
In 2015, he was selected to participate in the Kuandu Residency Programme in Taiwan, and last year, he was part of Art Stage Jakarta in Indonesia. Have You Ever is his third solo exhibition with Wei-Ling Gallery in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur, with seven acrylic on canvas works, many measuring over two metres each, stretching across the walls.
His previous solo shows The Urban Abyss (2013) and [F]ortunes Of Lives (2015) were colourfully detailed, in particular the latter, but Have You Ever is evidently the one that veers more into vibrant pop art territory.
This series of work in Have You Ever began with a question brimming with possibilities: Have you ever wondered …?
Wong shares that this gave him a chance to reflect on social issues and how the feeling of being stressed, worried, exhausted and apathetic leads to a downward spiral of malaise and helplessness.
“However, we should re-examine our perceptions and consider different points of view by stepping out of our comfort zone. Through a simple clever shift, we can develop the ability to think constructively, and in turn, overcome the habit of lamenting over sorrows and problems, and begin to see obstacles as opportunities,” he says.
Wong uses familiar objects and the colour blue generously in this series, pairing it with contrasting colours such as red and yellow, and is pleased when told the paintings look like they tell a happy story.
“I am glad they look ‘very happy’, this is exactly what I wish to deliver, to see colours in blues, to see happiness in sadness, to see positivity,” he notes.
“I hope my work will encourage people to see things from different angles and think positive, to have faith in self and maintain a sense of gratitude. Things will not be too bad if we have tried our best. I am a learner myself as well.”
The beach balls in his paintings, colourful and “energetic”, serve as a metaphor for the opportunities we are given in life.
“I was also looking for an object that can represent flexibility, similar to Bruce Lee’s ‘be like water, my friend’,” he adds.
One work, The Juggler, is completely filled with bouncing balls, making one wonder what could be accomplished if there are indeed so many opportunities for the taking.
On this work, Wong says: “Juggling is a skill that is hard enough to master, yet you have people who want to be stilt-walkers and unicyclists too. I believe that we are jugglers of life, we are constantly juggling the ‘balls’ of love, family, friends, and so much more. No matter how tough life can get, we just need to keep ‘juggling’.”
The buoyancy of these beach balls speaks volumes about new perspectives, action, willingness and optimism, a breath of fresh air in a world where there seems to be none.
“I hurt one eye, but I still have another perfect one,” comments Wong on his old injury.
Sometimes, less is indeed more.
Wong Chee Meng’s Have You Ever is on at Wei-Ling Gallery, 8, Jalan Scott, Brickfields in Kuala Lumpur till May 1. For more info, call 03-2260 1106 or visit weiling-gallery.com.