Visual artist Peter Liew is in high spirits as he walks through the seventh floor of Wisma Kebudayaan SGM in Kuala Lumpur. He points out some of the most famous people in history, their faces peering down upon him from their portraits: you can make out Mahatma Gandhi, Steve Jobs and Mother Teresa, among others. These are all the work of Liew, etched out painstakingly and patiently with oil paints and his painting knife.
Most people, Liew laughs, see the rough strokes and dramatic nature of his portraits, and assume he is completely different.
“My art is expressed in my character. A lot of friends and art lovers, they are surprised to see me, such a small-sized, very soft-spoken man. How come your paintings seem so vibrant and rough? When they haven’t seen me before, they assume I’m either an old man or a tough guy,” says a jovial Liew, 63, with a chuckle.
True, Liew may be on the slight side, but he has a heart as large as the mountains that often feature in his paintings. This veteran artist, who hails from Tapah, Perak, rose from humble beginnings to become a celebrated painter, and has now marked over four decades in the art scene.
The Peter Liew Retrospective will mark the first ever retrospective exhibition of Liew’s 40-year art career. It will also mark the first solo exhibition he has had in Malaysia in 21 years. The KL show, held at the Soka Gakkai Malaysia exhibition space in Wisma Kebudayaan SGM, features 63 works, arranged in three themes: Nature, Cultural Heritage, and Portraits.
Liew also has another exhibition, The Face, which is showing at the National Visual Arts Gallery till Aug 26. It features portraits of various prominent homegrown and international figures.
Liew didn’t always want to be an artist.
He recalls he very nearly ended up a policeman after secondary school. Most of his friends and family told him that most artists ended up starving, and that a policeman’s life would pay better and there would be a pension.
Liew had even gone for the policeman’s entrance exam. However, he suddenly had a change of heart.
“I suddenly realised, this was not the path that I wanted. After a few nights of very serious consideration, I decided to think about what life I wanted, and not have any regrets about it. As an artist, I could be poor my whole life. But painting was an interest, and I realised I wouldn’t mind being poor. If I could spend every day painting, I would be happy,” says Liew.
And so, Liew entered the Malaysian Institute of Art (MIA) in KL in 1976. Despite a lack of funds, Liew was determined not to let that stand in the way of his dreams, subsisting on instant noodles and other budget-saving tricks to get him through the programme.
“After less than a year, my black hair all turned white! Because of those instant noodles!” he exclaims.
“I would get all my canvases from graduate students. Once they graduate, they will put all their old paintings together, and usually burn them. But I would gather them and paint over them with water paint. So I saved a lot there for my artwork.”
When Liew graduated, he worked as a graphic designer in an advertising firm for a year. Very soon, he realised he wasn’t cut out for it.
After much thought, he decided to take the leap and become a full time artist.
He lasted for two years, describing the experience as a very tough one. Liew went around KL painting, barely making enough to get by. It was also around this time that he had his first solo exhibition, Outdoor Painting Exhibition in 1981.
The proceeds from the show were not enough to recoup his costs. Dejected, Liew gave up being a full time artist, returning to MIA, where he became a lecturer. There, he taught for 13 years (1981-1994), and might have continued for the rest of his life, if not for the words of his wife.
“My wife said, ‘I don’t think you’re going to spend your whole life as an teacher. Since you love it so much, why not give painting another try?’
“And I told her it was impossible, I had a family to support. But she told me to give it a try,” recalls Liew.
And so, Liew decided to give the art career another shot, selling his art studio to gain capital. He gave himself three years to make his name.
In the third year (1997), he had his second show, Oil Painting Exhibition, at Balai Seni Maybank in KL. His timing couldn’t have been worse. Back in mid-1997, the Asian financial crisis was starting to take effect in the region.
In those financially bleak days, Liew remembers, nobody really had time – or the mood – to buy artworks.
Fortunately, Liew had already built quite a name for himself. His career began to miraculously move forward despite the economy. His works started to get noticed, and buyers and collectors started taking an interest. He got through that turbulent time, and since then, has had his works displayed in group and solo shows. He has exhibited in China, Macedonia, Singapore, Japan and Thailand.
Walking through Liew’s retrospective, the viewer can’t help but be struck by the vast variety of works.
“This retrospective is not just for exhibition purposes. I hope whatever I learnt in the past 40 years, my language of art, I can show it to all art lovers so they can understand my art.”
There is a certain exuberant energy to Liew’s art.
“Peter is a cheerful painter. It’s not just the affable smile he wears on his face, but more the joy arising from immersing himself in painting. That’s when he inspires the most,” says Vicky Ho Pei Ying, a curator from Soka Gakkai Malaysia.
The Nature section, dating back to the 1970s, includes landscape works from places such as Batu Caves, Ipoh, Penang Hill and Tapah right to the outskirts of Paris, upstate New York vineyards, and rustic scenes in Prague, Czech Republic.
You can tell that Liew is an avid traveller, and he’s made many stops across Europe, China and Taiwan.
As a plein-air (outdoors) artist, Liew paints on location. That’s his main passion.
His Cultural Heritage section features old buildings and cultural landmarks, going back to 1970s scenes as seen in Kelantan Pasar Tani and St Paul’s Church Malacca. His 1990s works, featuring some richly layered and textured KL scenes, will be of interest to heritage lovers.
The Faces section displays various portraits. Most of them are his latest works, done from 2015-2018.
The idea of the exhibition came from The 100: A Ranking Of The Most Influential People In History by Michael H. Hart which Liew read in 1978.
The book detailed the achievements of 100 great people. Inspired by the book, Liew decided he would one day paint all of them. He has since finished 38, and has plans to do a grand show when he finishes all 100, hopefully in a few years.
“For me I paint portraits not just to capture their features. It’s more important for me to capture their characters,” says Liew.
Forty years may have passed since Liew first started his art adventure, but the man shows no signs of slowing down.
“The older I get, the more I want to be a student. There’s still so much to learn. You can learn from anyone, from nature, from other artists, even from children!” concludes Liew.
The Peter Liew Retrospective is on till Sept 2 at the Soka Exhibition Hall (Ground Floor) and the Hong Wen Exhibition Floor (7th Floor) of Wisma Kebudayaan SGM (No. 243, Jalan Bukit Bintang), Kuala Lumpur. The gallery is open daily from 11am-5pm, and is closed on Mondays. For more information, call 03-2144 8686 or visit sgm.org.my. Elsewhere, Peter Liew: The Face exhibition is on till Aug 26 at the National Visual Arts Gallery in KL (No.2, Jalan Temerloh, off Jalan Tun Razak).