Travellers On Escalator (oil on linen, 2015) by Leon Leong, featured in the artist’s first solo exhibition, Optimistic Melancholics, showing at Richard Koh Fine Art until July 14. Photos: Richard Koh Fine Art
Leon Leong never intended to paint a foreign city.
But, in 2011, the Ipoh-born artist embarked on an artistic tour of Europe. Taken by the beauty of Western art, Leong longed to see the splendour of such masterpieces up close, instead of through the lens of art websites or catalogues.
And so, he visited art galleries and fairs in France and Italy, taking in the styles and techniques of the great painters. Istanbul, Turkey was the Kuala Lumpur-based artist’s last stop. Leong found himself drawn to the city. He returned the following year, eventually staying there for six months.
“It’s an amazing place. So full of history, and a lot of energy as well,” reminisces Leong during an interview at the Richard Koh Fine Art Gallery, where his first solo exhibition Optimistic Melancholics, based on his experiences in Istanbul, is showing.
Inspired by the sights of the city, Leong took photographs of people and places he found interesting. These photographs became the references for Optimistic Melancholics, a series of paintings and studies.
“Turkish people may look very different from us, but there’s an Asian-ness to them that made me very comfortable,” he muses.
Pages of Orhan Pamuk’s novel Istanbul: Memories of a City, which was the Turkish writer’s love letter to his home, do come to mind when you view these paintings.
“I laid out the photos, and began picking things from them that I wanted to express, or look further into. My first reaction would be what excites, or intrigues me. And then I compose and conceive, to create a more general, or more universal story,” says Leong, 44.
“Ultimately, I want to tell a bigger story than the picture I took.”
A self-taught artist, Leong graduated in advertising in 1992 from the University of Texas, Austin, the United States. After working as an art director for six years, the call of his first love, art, proved too much to resist, and he started painting in 2008, eventually becoming a full-time artist two years later.
Leong is also an accomplished author of several award-winning short stories: his first novel, Beautiful Things, written in Chinese, was a Top 5 finalist in the Crown International Fiction Competition (Taiwan). Despite this literary prowess, however, Leong considers himself more an artist at heart.
“Ultimately, they are both art, just in different languages,” says the soft-spoken artist. “I think painting comes more naturally to me, I’m more of a visual person.”
Optimistic Melancholics is a sequenced set of oil on linen paintings that, fittingly, begins with The Family (2015), and closes with The Cemetery (2013). Each painting portrays a frame of locating oneself in contradiction through the various scenes of life.
Dinner In Sisli (2014), for example, features two men seated for dinner, a ritual usually connected with hospitality and friendship, yet the tension and contempt on their faces suggest a different story. Travellers On An Escalator (2015), on the other hand, is a snapshot of strangers brought together through necessity, all of them moving forward yet ultimately travelling nowhere.
Leong said he was originally inspired to create six paintings for his series, but decided to add a seventh (Travellers).
“I wanted to do seven. I mean, six, it was so even! Seven just seemed like a better structure. And Istanbul is the City of Seven Hills,” says Leong with a laugh.
His favourite painting of the series, Couple In Transition, showcases a middle-aged couple in their living room. Supposedly at rest, they both peer towards the sunlight, streaming in through an open window. In the background, a television screen shows the face of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of Turkey.
“Istanbullers, a lot of them work outside, but live in Istanbul. They are very optimistic about government, about the political climate, and so on. They are out, but their hearts are still here. They are melancholic, but looking to the future,” says Leong.
The setting of the last painting, Cemetery, was taken in Eyup, a district of Turkey renowned for its historic cemetery.
“I loved that place, so I went there and started shooting,” he reveals. “If you look at it, the person and the headstones look about the same. But the dead, they have found their space. Us, we are still looking for our positions, where we belong. And the person, who I put into the painting, kept telling me he wanted to kill himself. So it fits perfectly.”
Also showcased at the exhibition is another set of seven paintings, done by Leong as studies. These include portraits of his friends (Study Of Ozgun Measured Against Blinds), experiments with artistic technique (Light And Shadow) and depictions of the Turkish national sport, oil wrestling (Study Of A Fight For Brotherhood).
“I love that sport,” says Leong. “If you think about the idea of wrestling, you want to win, but you also depend on the other person to support you, for balance. And sometimes you just let go.”
“And after the wrestling, you have to shake hands. So as much as it’s a fight, it’s also a bit of a brotherhood. It’s an interesting contrast.’
Leong noted he hoped to paint something more local in the future. In the meantime, however, he is happy that Optimistic Melancholics is introducing the wonders of Istanbul to Malaysian art enthusiasts.
“If I never had been to Istanbul, I would not have looked so much into it. It was a whole new world for me,” says Leong. “And this (the exhibition) can be a window for those Malaysians who have never been there before. Maybe after this show, they might think of looking there!”
Optimistic Melancholics is on at Richard Koh Fine Art gallery at Lot No. 2F-3, Level 2 Bangsar Village II, Jalain Telawi 1, Bangsar Baru, Kuala Lumpur until July 14. The gallery is open daily from 10am- 10pm, and admission is free. For more info, call 03-2283 3677. Browse: rkfineart.com