JUNEO LEE ENG KEONG
Lecturer, NIE, 2004
MA (Hons), University of Western Sydney (Nepean), BFA, University of Tasmania (Launceston), Dip Fine Arts, LASALLE-SIA (Singapore)
He is an artist and educator whose research interests include issues of post-colonial identity in visual representation and the aspect of "bridging" or "transfer" of knowledge through thinking and learning process using art. He previously taught at LASALLE-SIA college of the arts and a local secondary school. Juneo has regularly exhibited his artworks and has three solo exhibitions in both Singapore and Australia. He is presently doing a PhD programme in the visual arts at the Nanyang Technological University
Review of Juneo Lees
'Mickey Mouse brush Painting: Examining Chineseness'
The Art Gallery @ National Institute of Education/Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
11 July 2003 to 31 July 2003
Source: Permission granted by Yow Siew Kah. She is a candidate in the PhD program at the Visual and Performing Arts group at the National Institute of Education/Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
Juneo Lee Eng Keong received his art education in Singapore and Australia. He is currently lecturing and pursuing his PhD at the National Institute of Education/Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Mickey Mouse brush Painting was also exhibited at White Box Gallery, Griffith University, Australia in September 2003.
Yow Siew Kah
When I walked into the gallery exhibiting Singaporean artist Juneo Lees latest works, I was struck by the large size of the paintings. The scrolls, each measuring 3.85 metres by 1.55 metres, were hung from the ceiling with the lower edges almost touching the floor. As I walked through the gallery, I felt walled in by the paintings. I recall from books on Chinese paintings that hanging scrolls, as opposed to hand scrolls, are meant to be displayed against the wall at eye level so that small groups of connoisseurs can contemplate the purity of the forms and the lyricism of the accompanying verses. This was certainly not the case with Lees works. I had to step back and look upwards to gain a sense of the whole in each of these paintings. Instead of seeing formal beauty and reading romantic poems I was staring at paintbrush drawings at which a Chinese traditionalist would gasp. I was also confronted with nonsense verses in broken Chinese written in the handwriting of a five-year-old child. Contemplation was of course out of the question. Instead, I came away with a stiff neck and was reminded of a comment made by art historian Yve-Alain Bois that certain art works make us think that the vertical human posture is nothing but a sham (Bois and Krauss, 1999, p26).
It is because of this comment that I like these paintings. Bois was, of course, talking about the horizontality aspects of the surrealist concept of formlessness. Juneo Lee has, through his use of non-traditional content and unconventional material, explored his experience of being Chinese in multi-ethnic Singapore by attempting to make formless what he understands as traditional Chinese paintbrush painting practices. In the process Lee challenges the viewer to consider issues of purity in art and culture. Using formlessness as a yardstick to measure artistic merit, compared with Lees works in this show, many of the so-called modern Chinese paintings I have seen havent even begun to scratch the surface.
'Goodluck Brush Painting'
Chinese ink on rice paper
3.85 x 1.55 metres
'Little Friend Getting Lost'
Chinese ink on rice paper
3.85 x 1.55 metres
Horizontalizing the vertical
While I found it hard to contemplate Chinese philosophy looking at Lees paintings, I was amused by the inclusion of popular icons such as the Japanese cartoon character Pokemon in one of the paintings (see 'Goodluck Brush Painting' above).
The practice of Chinese literati painting has traditionally been the concern of the wealthy, powerful and scholarly, and is preoccupied with the 'higher' mental faculties. The inclusion of 'base' subjects such as cartoon characters introduces a 'high-low' tension to the art work. Another way Lee does this is through the use of the recurring 'double yellow line' theme in several of his paintings (see 'Little Friend Getting Lost' above). The colour yellow is synonymous with Chineseness. The association probably has its origin in the Yellow River delta in northern China where the earliest inhabitants of China were believed to have come from. This is a 'high' aspect of the colour. At the same time, in the Chinese language the word 'yellow' is used to describe pornography, a 'low' meaning of the word. By representing the two meanings of the colour with two yellow lines drawn side by side, racial and sexual concerns are presented as closely related, with the former being high but tends towards being exclusionary and the latter a base subject (not traditionally one in Chinese paintings) but tends towards unity.
Base materialism is another operative Bois talks about in his discussion of formlessness, one which he says was the principal weapon in the battle Bataille wanted to wage against idealism (Bois and Krauss, 1999, p29). Instead of having his paintings professionally mounted on silk like traditional Chinese hanging scrolls, Lee pasted his paintings on pieces of cloth normally used to make cheap bed sheets. Lees use of a base material here further makes horizontal Chinese paintbrush practices, moving it a notch closer to earth.
As art historian Jessica Rawson notes, the practice of Chinese calligraphy is closely related to that of Chinese painting, with the ability to control the pliable brush to create strokes of different thickness an important element in both disciplines (Rawson, 1992). Verses written in a well-practiced hand are often present at the side of a Chinese painting to demonstrate the mastery the artist has over the paint brush. Looking at it from a purists point of view, not only is Lees calligraphy (deliberately) not well practiced, but his Chinese verses, occasionally sprinkled with broken English phrases, demonstrate (deliberately) a poor command of the language. Nonsensical as it looks, and in spite of the repeated call by certain purist groups in the country to speak Pekinese Chinese and the Queens English, the language used in Lees verses is sincere. It closely approximates the brand of Chinese spoken by Singaporeans in daily conversations. Here lies what I believe is an important finding in Lees exploratory journey (which may parallel his thoughts on post-colonial discourse) that Chineseness in multi-ethnic Singapore is as much about destruction as it is about preservation. The idea of purity is a shifting one. Although these paintings were created in a specifically Singaporean context, given the close relationship between the pursuit of purity and fascism, the messages contained in these art works have universal relevance.
Bois, Y-A., & Krauss, R. (1999). Formless: A Users Guide. New York: Zone Books.
Rawson, J. (Ed), (1992). The British Museum Book of Chinese Art. London: British Museum Press