It’s the norm to stare at a painting to try and decipher what hidden messages the artist has in store. This is mostly the case with abstract art.
However, Malaysian contemporary artist and calligrapher CN Liew, who is based in Hong Kong, feels that art enthusiasts shouldn’t view his abstract paintings using their eyes but with their hearts instead.
“My Zen master once told me that even our heart has a pair of eyes,” says Liew in an interview in Kuala Lumpur last month. “The mind too can be summoned to appreciate art.”
The 39-year-old Kuala Lumpur-born artist speaks with a philosophical bent when discussing his works.
Liew learnt Zen art and meditation from the late master Most Venerable Bo Yuan, a famous Zen artist, for about 18 years. He also learnt Chinese calligraphy and the theory of art from academician Tan Swee Hian, a member-correspondent of the Academy of Fine Arts, Institute of France, for 15 years.
Liew moved to Hong Kong in 2010 but travels back to Malaysia on and off on private matters.
In Hong Kong, he is represented by two galleries, Plum Blossoms International and Du Monde Gallery.
He is also known for his creation of “surrealligraphy”, a fusion of Western surrealism and Chinese calligraphy, which garnered him a special award at the 1st Seoul Calligraphy Biennale in 2005.
“Surrealligraphy is surrealism and calligraphy. It was also inspired by colourful Chinese opera masks and Tibetan lama dance,” he explains.
To date, Liew has held 10 solo and 18 group exhibitions and collaborated with contemporary dancers and orchestra to present his performance art.
In 2003/04, he also created a 11m long calligraphy work at a live art performance in Kuala Lumpur.
Presently, his medium is acrylic on metal (mostly aluminium, steel or bronze), which is quite unusual.
In fact, his Calligraphic Evolution series launched five years ago is still gaining popularity and he has added more paintings to this series.
His latest works in this series were featured in his exhibition Zi Zai (which is Mandarin for At Ease), his largest solo exhibition to date.
The exclusive one-night only exhibition, attended by 200 special guests, was held at Berjaya Times Square Hotel in Kuala Lumpur on June 8. It featured 25 paintings, including 10 new works.
The exhibition, with works loaned from private collections, reflected Liew’s creative growth from 2000 to 2015.
The highlight was a live art performance by Liew, who produced a Chinese calligraphy piece with music accompaniment by award-winning guqin (seven-stringed zither) player Ng Teck Hing.
He collaborated with Art Access, an art gallery in Kuala Lumpur, on this recent art project.
The Calligraphic Evolution series features abstract paintings with hidden Chinese calligraphy on metal. His works are said to have yin (soft brush) and yang (hard metal) elements and propagate Chinese philosophy (in calligraphy) from the likes of philosophers of ancient China such as Confucius, Zhuangzi and Lao Tzu (also poet and author of Tao Te Ching).
Even though the series is well received, Liew does not paint more than 20 paintings in a year. The number of paintings in the series a year would depend on his inspiration to paint. “If I feel that it is enough, I will stop painting,” says Liew, who takes about three weeks to complete a painting.
Liew has been producing Chinese calligraphy work for about 20 years.
“My calligraphy comprises of cursive script and crazy script. The crazy script is from the Tang Dynasty period. It is said to summon a lot of emotions and is similar to abstract expressionism,” he said.
Liew’s calligraphic strokes in his paintings are, at most times, not easily visible.
“I write one word (Chinese character) and overlap it with another. You cannot see the characters as I paint over them. Sometimes, I write my characters at the centre of the painting, or all over the canvas. I may even write it upside down,” he adds with a laugh.
He also revealed that the first and last (Chinese) characters can often be seen in his painting.
Most titles of his paintings are wordy, stringing together a passage or two of Chinese texts. The titles are based on the philosophy behind his paintings and the strokes. For example, in his 2015 work Form Is Emptiness And The Very Emptiness Is Form … (acrylic on metal), Liew handcrafted 16 Chinese characters of this line, overlapping the characters, in the exuberant painting.
As a Zen practitioner, Liew insisted that we should “listen” to our heart and mind to appreciate art.
He said: “You must feel the limitless energy and appreciate the (brush)strokes.”
Even after 100 years, he predicts, one can still “feel the movement, the energy and the reflection of the calligraphy.”
By reflection, he is not referring to the image casted by the metal “medium”. He means “the reflection of the mind”. And, he felt that “every one has a story in the deep recesses of one’s mind.”
He also explains that his paintings (on metal) yield a different effect under different light sources.
“The image is different under strong light and dim light,” said Liew.
Whether local or foreign, he said not many artists use metal as an art medium. Some of them may use oil on metal in their paintings.
Liew describes his art studio as “a laboratory” where he constantly experiments and comes up with new ideas. And he is game to face challenges.
He quipped: “A good artist must always give himself challenges.”
A sampling of CN Liew’s works can be viewed at Art Accent, Bangsar Village 2, Bangsar in Kuala Lumpur. Call 03-2287-1908. Browse: artaccent.com.my