Orchid painter returns

SINGAPORE - Malaysian artist Tang Juey Lee has painted hundreds of watercolour works in his three-decade-long career but not one piece remains in his possession.

The 61-year-old, who spent 17 years honing his craft in Singapore, says: "I don't keep any of my old paintings because I am always improving."

Nor does he have a chance to hold onto his creations; his ardent collectors readily snap up his luminous watercolours of orchids before the paint is dry.

Yet art lovers and collectors here have had little opportunity until recently to come upon his richly coloured paintings after he moved back to his hometown, Johor Baru, in 1993.

He returned, however, to show in a group exhibition last year at the Ion Art Gallery in Ion Orchard mall.

The show featured South-east Asian artists including emerging Vietnamese oil painter Nguyen Ngoc Anh and well-known Singapore-based artist Kumari Nahappan.

Now, the spotlight is firmly on Tang with Reunion, his first solo outing in more than a decade. Held at The Arts House, the show features 18 new works in Chinese ink and watercolour, and includes the introduction of a new motif, koi fish, to his oeuvre. The paintings are priced for sale between $3,000 and $8,000.

Some older works in private collections will also be on loan for display in the show.

The exhibition is part of the programme for CausewayEXchange, an annual arts and culture festival that aims to foster closer ties between arts communities in Singapore and Malaysia.

On his two-decade-long hiatus from Singapore's art scene, Tang, who continued to paint, exhibit and sell his paintings in Malaysia, says it was a chance meeting with Singapore art dealer Valerie Cheah of Jada Art in 2012 that made him cross the Causeway again.

"There were many galleries in Singapore that wanted to sell my paintings but they did not want to hold exhibitions, they just wanted to stock my paintings," he says.

"Valerie understood what I wanted."

Ms Cheah, 47, an art lover and lawyer by day, says she was introduced to his art two years ago by a family friend.

She says: "I had not heard of him before but I later found out he was an arts luminary in the early days and I wanted to honour his contributions. He deserves greater recognition."

Tang, the third of seven children born to a businessman father and housewife mother, had harboured an interest in Chinese painting since young. Determined to pursue a career in art, he enrolled at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts to pursue a diploma in fine arts in 1974 with the blessing of his parents, after completing his O-level examinations in Malaysia.

At the academy, Tang was taught by famed artists such as Georgette Chen and See Hiang To, and it was during those formative years that his life-long love for painting orchids began to bloom.

He came upon the flowers on visits to the Singapore Botanic Gardens while seeking creative inspiration and he was quickly captivated by their intricate designs, wide variety and expansive colour palette.

At the encouragement of his teacher Chen, he submitted his paintings for exhibition in group shows, including the National Day Art Exhibition, a popular public art show in Singapore in the 1970s and 1980s, jointly organised by the then Ministry of Culture and other arts groups.

These exhibitions exposed his early work to art collectors who soon came knocking on his door. "I was still a student but I was already selling my paintings. Every painting I did, I sold," he says with quiet pride.

While orchids are a fixture in his works, he enlivens the compositions with life-like depictions of insects such as dragonflies and grasshoppers, and birds with multi-hued plummage such as budgerigars and macaws.

Recently, he began juxtaposing the flowering plant with images of swimming koi fish. The impetus: his hobby of rearing koi as pets and his fascination with their frisky moves in water.

He has been keeping koi for a few years and owns more than 40 of them in a pond in his semi-detached home in Johor Baru, where he lives with his wife and two adult daughters.

The new subject matter has also pushed him to experiment with new watercolour techniques that will enhance the play of light and shadow in his paintings and render the flora and fauna more realistic.

He says: "I know I don't have to do anything new for my paintings to sell but it is quite boring for me if I keep doing the same thing."

The tireless, prolific painter, however, paints every day, between 3 and 6am, when the rest of the world is asleep and he is free from distractions. He completes, on average, one painting every week and he has been hard at work in the weeks leading up to this solo exhibition.

Ever unassuming, he says: "I am very happy to be able to come back to Singapore after 20 years."



Where: The Arts House, 1 Parliament Lane

When: Till June 22, 10am to 8pm daily

Admission: Free

This article was published on June 14 in The Straits Times.

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