All eyes on surrealism at Chan Thean Chie's homecoming show in Penang


Chan's 'Chaos And Order' exhibition at the Penang State Museum and Art Gallery features 40 works done on paper. Photo: Richard Koh Fine Art

As we gaze, dozens of eyes stare back.

Lips and noses, devoid of their owners, swirl collectively in a disquieting harmony that both repels and attracts its viewer.

A decade since his last exhibition in the country, contemporary artist Chan Thean Chie came home last weekend with his showcase of Chaos And Order at Dewan Sri Pinang, Penang State Art Gallery in George Town.

The exhibition, which has attracted a curious and enthusiastic crowd since its opening, features 40 works done on paper.

Held in Chan's hometown of Penang, the stirring, surrealistic collection is totally out of the box, particularly for traditional views of art that still largely dominate domestic tastes.

Not that this disturbs Chan, who spent his childhood on both the island and mainland parts of the northern state.

A crowd of art enthusiasts seen at Chan's exhibition at the Penang State Museum and Art Gallery. Photo: Penang State Art Gallery.A crowd of art enthusiasts seen at Chan's exhibition at the Penang State Museum and Art Gallery. Photo: Penang State Art Gallery.

“Art is not just about the idyllic; it’s about a battleground,” he expounds.

And a battleground it seems to be as half-filled faces twirl with errant body parts, sometimes depicted on plants, at other times, above webs of looping lines and twirls.

But the "chaos" seen at Penang State Art Gallery is not without context.

Described as a visual embodiment of “the reality of shifting cultural and psychic geographies, of migratory exigencies in the 20th century”, the artworks in Chaos And Order allow visitors a glimpse into the experiences of people moving across borders and perhaps, Chan’s own dealings as a migrant living in Europe for the 30 years.

A life in Europe

Chan moved to Bukit Mertajam (from Penang island) in the 1980s. His adventures abroad began when he started university life.

"After my A-levels, I was accepted to study fine art in three different universities: Universiti Sains Malaysia (back on Penang island), Tunghai University in Taiwan and the University of Applied Arts Vienna,” he says.

An artwork from Chan's homecoming exhibition called 'Untitled #19' (ink on paper, 2018). Photo: Photo: Richard Koh Fine ArtAn artwork from Chan's homecoming exhibition called 'Untitled #19' (ink on paper, 2018). Photo: Photo: Richard Koh Fine Art

Lured by the appeal of affordable education, the Jit Sin High School alumni packed his bags and headed to Austria.

“I decided to study in Vienna because at the time, studying there was almost free, like most universities in European countries. I finished my studies at the beginning of 2000."In 1999, he received his Masters from the MK Attersee, University of Applied Arts in Vienna.

Throughout the last 25 years, Chan has had numerous solo and group exhibitions in Austria, notably at the Museum of Modern Art and Galerie Krinzinger in Vienna.

"After that, I was represented by one of the best galleries in Austria – Galerie Krinzinger – and I still work with them now,” adds Chan, noting that after his solo exhibition in Penang, the Vienna gallery will next host him at the beginning of October.

Austria-based Chan's last exhibition in Asia was in 2012 in Kuala Lumpur, which makes his homecoming show in George Town an extra special occasion. Photo: Richard Koh Fine ArtAustria-based Chan's last exhibition in Asia was in 2012 in Kuala Lumpur, which makes his homecoming show in George Town an extra special occasion. Photo: Richard Koh Fine Art

Since leaving university, Chan has launched a successful career as a professional artist and photographer, exhibiting from Paris to Hong Kong, from Art Basel to Kunstforum Wien.

And to mark his 50th birthday, he has this homecoming exhibition at the Penang State Museum and Art Gallery as memorable experience. Chaos And Order is held in collaboration with Richard Koh Fine Art (RKFA), a regional gallery based in Kuala Lumpur.

“I met Richard Koh three years ago and he suggested a show in Penang. I am a proud Penangite and I think it is a good time to show my works to the Penang crowd.

"People might say my works are not beautiful but beauty is not only what you see, like in paintings with still life or landscapes. I want to create works complex with the aspect of life; not only what we see but also what we feel,” says Chan.

Chan's artwork named 'Untitled 36' (ink on paper, 2020). Photo: Richard Koh Fine ArtChan's artwork named 'Untitled 36' (ink on paper, 2020). Photo: Richard Koh Fine Art

With the idea that beauty can be found in relevance and not merely in things pleasing to the eye, Chan forges forward to capture the duality of everyday existence.

Chaos And Order is about dualism in life, like black and white, full and empty, yin and yang ...

"As we get older, we don’t see the world with two eyes. You need to observe the world and reality with many different eyes.

"And the realities are much more complex than what we are used to seeing and understanding,” he adds.

'Untitled 15' (ink on paper, 2018). Photo: Richard Koh Fine Art'Untitled 15' (ink on paper, 2018). Photo: Richard Koh Fine Art

With this, he hopes to allow the paintings to speak in a language beyond words, to communicate something that words fail to express.

And this hope burns especially fervently in George Town, where Chan’s exhibition may clash with more aesthetically conservative offerings.

“I would like to show Penang something different from the things they have seen before. To be an artist is not difficult, everybody can paint.

"But to make art a profession is not just about passion. You have to stick to it and have faith for the whole journey,” he says.

Chaos And Order will run at the Penang State Museum and Art Gallery, George Town till Aug 21. More info here.

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