Date: April 20 – May 5, 2017
Venue: The Edge Galerie, G5-G6, Mont’ Kiara Meridin, 19 Jalan Duta Kiara, Mont’ Kiara, 50480 Kuala Lumpur (permanently closed)
Malaysian artist Tang Juey Lee has been painting orchids for the past 40 years and is better known on the Singapore art scene where the press has dubbed him “Singapore’s Orchid Artist”. This show also marks the 30th year since Tang’s first exhibition in Kuala Lumpur in 1986. At the time, the artist painted mainly with watercolour on rice paper. He has since progressed to acrylic paint as his preferred medium on Chinese rice paper with gold flecks.
A PASSION FOR ORCHIDS
Dubbed “Singapore’s Orchid Artist”, 63-year-old Malaysian artist Tang Juey Lee is better known in the city state as he graduated from its Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in the 1970s.
Tang held most of his exhibitions in Singapore, where his meticulous style of painting orchids earned him many accolades. Moreover, the orchid is Singapore’s national flower. But the artist took a 23-year hiatus in the 1990s to establish his own art school and only resumed exhibiting in 2014. Collectors welcomed him with open arms, buying up all his work.
His exquisite paintings of orchid blooms, typically matched with parrots, geese, roosters and ducks, can be said to belong to the flower-and-bird genre of Chinese paintings but combined with Western Realism. Such works have a following among collectors who particularly favour the gongbi style of Chinese art, which focuses on Realist techniques.
Tang initially painted with watercolour on rice paper but progressed to acrylic paint diluted with water to achieve more vibrant and colourful compositions. In his only second one-man show in Kuala Lumpur since 1986, Tang will showcase 20 paintings at The Edge Galerie. Their prices range from RM5,000 to RM21,000 each.
“I paint what I see,” says the veteran artist, adding that he prefers to observe flowers in full bloom, particularly in the Singapore Botanic Gardens, where he practises life sketching to hone his skills in rendering lifelike compositions.
Tang’s body of work comprises a variety of orchids — Dendrobium; Cymbidium or boat orchid; Oncidium, commonly known as the Golden Shower or Dancing Lady; Renantanda; Phalaenopsis Blume or moth orchid; and more.
“I have painted over 300 different orchid species in the past 40 years,” remarks Tang.
In addition to these blossoms, the artist incorporates koi, squirrels, kittens and chicks, among other things, as well as insects such as bees and butterflies into his work.
“I recently included animals in my paintings to complement the orchids,” explains Tang, who began pairing his works of flora with fauna in 2013 and using acrylic in 2015.
Tang embraced the traditional bird-and-flower theme and enhanced his subject matter by using acrylic paint on rice paper instead of the conventional ink or watercolour.
“The materials I use are high-quality acrylic paints by Daler-Rowney and rice paper dusted with gold flecks imported from China,” he explains.
“I chose acrylic over watercolour because of its lasting quality. Its fast-drying effect, which is similar to that of watercolour, allows me to work on several paintings at one time. The vibrancy of acrylic paint works best for my subject matter.”
Viewers of Tang’s expressive paintings will feel a great sense of joy. He creates pleasant compositions by carefully placing his choice of flowers with selected animals.
In Lazy Afternoon, created specifically for the show and measuring 86cm by 96cm, Tang illustrates the red Renantanda orchid dispersed across the picture plane in harmony with kittens playing with chicks in the foreground. One of the kittens near a strawberry plant is depicted trying to catch a fish in a net. A snail is seen slithering on the ground.
Such details distinguish Tang as an imaginative and meticulous painter who not only focuses on portraying orchids in their truest form but also adds simple touches to evoke happiness and positive vibes.
The yellow-green leaves that frame the deep red blooms, which dominate the painting, offer a balanced configuration.
“One of the important elements of my work, besides colour, is composition. My aim is to create harmonious paintings that make people happy,” says the artist.
Prosperity Koi illustrates a school of nine of the fish, which have symbolic significance in Chinese culture. The offering of nine koi to new parents is considered the most meaningful gift of all because it will bless the child with two secrets of success — determination and flexibility — which are traits believed to be found in koi.
But the importance of nine koi extends beyond the story of success and harmony to include luck, wealth and protection. The number nine represents completeness and eternity in Chinese culture.
Fluttering Grace depicts an intriguing combination of the Vanda “Miss Joaquim” orchid, banana trees and a company of macaw parrots perched on tree branches. Measuring 68cm by 106cm, the artwork illustrates the landscape of Southeast Asia.
Also apparent in Tang’s body of work are visually stimulating lines and shapes. Illustrated in the 90cm by 68cm Joyful Bliss is the alluring Phalaenopsis Blume orchid with a company of budgerigar parrots either fluttering in the air or perched on a tree branch. The common pet parakeets are illustrated in pastel blue and green.
Traditionally, owning or gifting such a painting reflects a cultured mind or a person schooled in Chinese aesthetic and customs. It goes beyond displaying something that is symbolic of prosperity or merely wishing good luck.
Born in Johor Baru, Tang studied at Singapore’s Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts from 1974 to 1976 and graduated with a diploma in Western art.
Under the tutelage of renowned Singaporean pioneer artist, Georgette Chen (1906-1993), Tang learnt to incorporate into his paintings Eastern sentiments with Western techniques.
Paris-trained Chen, who painted in the post-Impressionism style, taught Tang the fundamentals of Western compositions, such as perspective.
Tang himself taught at a college that he founded — Raphael Academy of Art — in Johor Baru between 1991 and 1998.
“I was the principal of the now defunct college and taught watercolour to diploma students for seven years. At the same time, I was creating artworks to sell to collectors in Singapore and Australia,” he says.
Although his passion for producing orchid paintings is immeasurable, Tang claims to not have any emotional attachment to his work.
“All of my paintings are sold upon completion. I do not keep any of my old work,” he says when asked if he has an inventory of artworks created over the years.
His tutor Chen had kept most of her paintings until her death in 1993, when the Lee Foundation took custody of her collection. Most of her paintings were then donated to the Singapore Art Museum in 1994.
According to Tang, who has held international exhibitions since 1977, his artworks are well received in Singapore, Australia and Taiwan.
“My first and only exhibition in Kuala Lumpur was in 1986. Now, 30 years later, I have returned to show my new work,” he says.
Held at Shangri-La Hotel, Kuala Lumpur, the 1986 exhibition was said by the artist to have been supported by Joyce Kuok, then wife of business tycoon Robert Kuok.
Entitled The Dream Landscape Series, the show comprised around 30 watercolour orchid paintings and was officiated at by the then Urban Development Authority chairman Tan Sri Murad Mohd Noor.
Tang was also commissioned by hotels and restaurants in Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia to paint for them.
His artworks are in various private collections abroad as well as in the hands of public institutions and corporations, including the Singapore Art Museum, Singapore Changi Airport, Citibank, Gulf International Bank, Shangri-La Group and Royal Holiday Inn in Singapore.