Sean Lean’s Felicitas, Fortuna and Meditrina hangs on the wall of Wei-Ling Contemporary, stunning and vivid. The three massive alkyd enamel paintings take up an entire wall at the Kuala Lumpur-based gallery, offering a visual feast of colours.
The gorgeous artworks, three of the 18 displayed at the gallery now for Lean’s Motherland solo exhibition, have a certain familiarity about them.
Each painting features a female character, radiant in their beauty and magnetic in strength. They seem to represent the different aspirations of man, namely happiness, wealth and longevity. Slowly, a realisation dawns. You have seen this before. Just, not in this form and definitely not at this time of year.
Traditionally known as the Sanxing or the Three Stars, the figures are usually represented by old and bearded Chinese men, in their traditional garb and are placed at Chinese homes during the Chinese New Year. But Lean decided to give them his own interpretation – replacing the classic Chinese deities with divine Roman goddesses.
“I wanted to see how much of a difference it could make by replacing the typical images with images that essentially carry the same meaning but from the other side of the world,” says Lean, 34.
And what Lean discovered came as a non-shocker.
“They still carry the same meaning,” he maintains. In fact, the entire exhibition – which is Lean’s second solo – is a fragmented treatment of traditional Chinese icons.
This is not Lean’s first stint at Wei-Ling Contemporary. Earlier this year, Lean was part of The Space Between group exhibition, curated by Anurendra Jegadeva and Rahel Joseph. Lean had his first solo with the gallery in 2013 for his Flesh: Blacks & Whites exhibition, a monochromatic series of animal paintings.
For Motherland, which took the artist nearly two years to finish, each painting depicts a recognisable Chinese character, from a dragon and phoenix to the Buddha and the Goddess of Mercy.
However, Lean deliberately removed elements which made these iconic figures traditional and retained parts which still make it Chinese.
He called these artful shifts in his subject matter his “visual strategy”.
“There are different degrees to which I’m trying to push these Chinese icons to something that is not Chinese,” says the Klang-based full-time artist.
But this did not necessarily transpire easily for Lean. What he discovered was that he still had reverence and respect for these figures. Despite growing up with a primarily Westernised outlook, Lean realised he was very much tied to his Chinese roots.
“I grew up in a very traditional Chinese environment. My parents don’t really speak English. I attended Chinese school, but then I went through a period where Western pop culture took hold of me … you know, the sitcoms, cartoons, comic books and what not,” he explains.
He had a rethink – through his art – on his relationship with his own culture and traditions.
“I thought I was detached from my Chinese culture and that I could change, alter and butcher the traditional Chinese images quite easily. But I was wrong. I felt trepidation. It took me by surprise,” recounts Lean.
The visual and digital arts graduate from Limkokwing University College of Creative Technology decided to proceed with his experiment.
The results found throughout Motherland’s pieces are stunning.
There is a colourful vibrancy and cultural richness in his paintings. Take for instance the Multicolor Dragon series. The Chinese dragon is one of the most recognisable icons of the culture, with its serpentine body, four legs and its long whisker-like appendage.
Traditionally, a typical painting of the Chinese dragon uses flat colours and depicts the beast in its full glory. What Lean executed was most refreshing. Not only were the dragons multicoloured, they were repeated like prints on the canvas.
Another only showed part of the dragon’s face, with bright and warm colours, giving it a very batik-like feel.
“You take away so much of what is the tradition of painting a dragon, and it essentially becomes eye candy,” says Lean.
This writer’s favourite paintings are Red Door (Guardian) and Green Door (Guardian). Once again, the artist’s treatment of these iconic guardian figures painted on doors conjures vibrant images that they look as if they have been plucked out of a Japanese anime or a graphic novel.
What is obvious talking to Lean is that there is a search of sorts by the young Malaysian for his cultural identity. He grew up with one leg in his Chinese culture and another in Western influences.
After all, Lean did say that Motherland is about “the idea of being a Chinese and the gap between my father’s Chinese-ness and my own Chinese-ness. It just shows how ideas and cultures evolve and how culture is not static but fluid.”
These reflections point to something bigger than cultural identity. And the search for it is especially prevalent amongst the younger generation of Malaysians, who seem to discover the grounding effect of culture.
“I think it’s important to think about these sort of things,” concludes Lean.
Motherland is on till Sept 17 at Wei-Ling Contemporary at RT01, 6th Floor, The Gardens Mall in Kuala Lumpur. The gallery is open Tuesday to Sunday, from 11am to 7pm. For more information, visit weiling-gallery.com, call 03-2260 1106/03-22828323, or e-mail: email@example.com.