Por­trait of an artist

Peter Liew’s Ret­ro­spec­tive – the first ever ca­reer-span­ning ex­hi­bi­tion for the vet­eran oil painter – is a highly lay­ered and tex­tured se­ries of colour­ful works dat­ing back to the early 1970s.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Front Page - By TER­ENCE TOH star2@thes­tar.com.my

VIS­UAL artist Peter Liew is in high spir­its as he walks through the sev­enth floor of Wisma Ke­bu­dayaan SGM in Kuala Lumpur. He points out some of the most fa­mous peo­ple in his­tory, their faces peer­ing down upon him from their por­traits: you can make out Ma­hatma Gandhi, Steve Jobs and Mother Teresa, among oth­ers. These are all the work of Liew, etched out painstak­ingly and pa­tiently with oil paints and his paint­ing knife.

Most peo­ple, Liew laughs, see the rough strokes and dra­matic na­ture of his por­traits, and as­sume he is com­pletely dif­fer­ent.

“My art is ex­pressed in my char­ac­ter. A lot of friends and art lovers, they are sur­prised to see me, such a small-sized, very soft-spo­ken man. How come your paint­ings seem so vi­brant and rough? When they haven’t seen me be­fore, they as­sume I’m ei­ther an old man or a tough guy,” says a jovial Liew, 63, with a chuckle.

True, Liew may be on the slight side, but he has a heart as large as the moun­tains that of­ten fea­ture in his paint­ings. This vet­eran artist, who hails from Ta­pah, Perak, rose from hum­ble begin­nings to be­come a cel­e­brated painter, and has now marked over four decades in the art scene.

The Peter Liew Ret­ro­spec­tive will mark the first ever ret­ro­spec­tive ex­hi­bi­tion of Liew’s 40-year art ca­reer. It will also mark the first solo ex­hi­bi­tion he has had in Malaysia in 21 years. The KL show, held at the Soka Gakkai Malaysia ex­hi­bi­tion space in Wisma Ke­bu­dayaan SGM, fea­tures 63 works, ar­ranged in three themes: Na­ture, Cul­tural Her­itage, and Por­traits.

Liew also has an­other ex­hi­bi­tion, The Face, which is show­ing at the Na­tional Vis­ual Arts Gallery till Aug 26. It fea­tures por­traits of var­i­ous prom­i­nent home­grown and in­ter­na­tional fig­ures.

Liew didn’t al­ways want to be an artist. He re­calls he very nearly ended up a po­lice­man af­ter sec­ondary school. Most of his friends and fam­ily told him that most artists ended up starv­ing, and that a po­lice­man’s life would pay bet­ter and there would be a pen­sion.

Liew had even gone for the po­lice­man’s en­trance exam. How­ever, he sud­denly had a change of heart.

“I sud­denly re­alised, this was not the path that I wanted. Af­ter a few nights of very se­ri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion, I de­cided to think about what life I wanted, and not have any re­grets about it. As an artist, I could be poor my whole life. But paint­ing was an in­ter­est, and I re­alised I wouldn’t mind be­ing poor. If I could spend ev­ery day paint­ing, I would be happy,” says Liew.

And so, Liew en­tered the Malaysian In­sti­tute of Art (MIA) in KL in 1976. De­spite a lack of funds, Liew was de­ter­mined not to let that stand in the way of his dreams, sub­sist­ing on in­stant noo­dles and other bud­get-sav­ing tricks to get him through the pro­gramme.

“Af­ter less than a year, my black hair all turned white! Be­cause of those in­stant noo­dles!” he ex­claims.

“I would get all my can­vases from grad­u­ate stu­dents. Once they grad­u­ate, they will put all their old paint­ings to­gether, and usu­ally burn them. But I would gather them and paint over them with wa­ter paint. So I saved a lot there for my art­work.”

When Liew grad­u­ated, he worked as a graphic de­signer in an ad­ver­tis­ing firm for a year. Very soon, he re­alised he wasn’t cut out for it.

Af­ter much thought, he de­cided to take the leap and be­come a full time artist.

He lasted for two years, de­scrib­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence as a very tough one. Liew went around KL paint­ing, barely mak­ing enough to get by. It was also around this time that he had his first solo ex­hi­bi­tion, Out­door Paint­ing Ex­hi­bi­tion in 1981.

The pro­ceeds from the show were not enough to re­coup his costs. De­jected, Liew gave up be­ing a full time artist, re­turn­ing to MIA, where he be­came a lec­turer. There, he taught for 13 years (1981-1994), and might have con­tin­ued for the rest of his life, if not for the words of his wife.

“My wife said, ‘I don’t think you’re go­ing to spend your whole life as an teacher. Since you love it so much, why not give paint­ing an­other try?’

“And I told her it was im­pos­si­ble, I had a fam­ily to sup­port. But she told me to give it a try,” re­calls Liew.

And so, Liew de­cided to give the art ca­reer an­other shot, sell­ing his art stu­dio to gain cap­i­tal. He gave him­self three years to make his name.

In the third year (1997), he had his sec­ond show, Oil Paint­ing Ex­hi­bi­tion, at Balai Seni May­bank in KL. His tim­ing couldn’t have been worse. Back in mid-1997, the Asian fi­nan­cial cri­sis was start­ing to take ef­fect in the re­gion.

In those fi­nan­cially bleak days, Liew re­mem­bers, no­body re­ally had time – or the

mood – to buy art­works.

For­tu­nately, Liew had al­ready built quite a name for him­self. His ca­reer be­gan to mirac­u­lously move for­ward de­spite the econ­omy. His works started to get no­ticed, and buy­ers and collectors started tak­ing an in­ter­est. He got through that tur­bu­lent time, and since then, has had his works dis­played in group and solo shows. He has ex­hib­ited in China, Mace­do­nia, Sin­ga­pore, Ja­pan and Thai­land.

Walk­ing through Liew’s ret­ro­spec­tive, the viewer can’t help but be struck by the vast va­ri­ety of works.

“This ret­ro­spec­tive is not just for ex­hi­bi­tion pur­poses. I hope what­ever I learnt in the past 40 years, my lan­guage of art, I can show it to all art lovers so they can un­der­stand my art.”

There is a cer­tain ex­u­ber­ant en­ergy to Liew’s art.

“Peter is a cheer­ful painter. It’s not just the af­fa­ble smile he wears on his face, but more the joy aris­ing from im­mers­ing him­self in paint­ing. That’s when he in­spires the most,” says Vicky Ho Pei Ying, a cu­ra­tor from Soka Gakkai Malaysia.

The Na­ture sec­tion, dat­ing back to the 1970s, in­cludes land­scape works from places such as Batu Caves, Ipoh, Pe­nang Hill and Ta­pah right to the out­skirts of Paris, up­state New York vine­yards, and rus­tic scenes in Prague, Czech Re­pub­lic.

You can tell that Liew is an avid trav­eller, and he’s made many stops across Europe, China and Tai­wan.

Asa plein-air (out­doors) artist, Liew paints on lo­ca­tion. That’s his main pas­sion.

His Cul­tural Her­itage sec­tion fea­tures old build­ings and cul­tural land­marks, go­ing back to 1970s scenes as seen in Ke­lan­tan Pasar Tani and St Paul’s Church Malacca. His 1990s works, featuring some richly lay­ered and tex­tured KL scenes, will be of in­ter­est to her­itage lovers.

The Faces sec­tion dis­plays var­i­ous por­traits. Most of them are his lat­est works, done from 2015-2018.

The idea of the ex­hi­bi­tion came from The 100: A Rank­ing Of The Most In­flu­en­tial Peo­ple

In His­tory by Michael H. Hart which Liew read in 1978.

The book de­tailed the achieve­ments of 100 great peo­ple. In­spired by the book, Liew de­cided he would one day paint all of them. He has since fin­ished 38, and has plans to do a grand show when he fin­ishes all 100, hope­fully in a few years.

“For me I paint por­traits not just to cap­ture their fea­tures. It’s more important for me to cap­ture their char­ac­ters,” says Liew.

Forty years may have passed since Liew first started his art ad­ven­ture, but the man shows no signs of slow­ing down.

“The older I get, the more I want to be a stu­dent. There’s still so much to learn. You can learn from any­one, from na­ture, from other artists, even from chil­dren!” con­cludes Liew.

The Peter Liew Ret­ro­spec­tive is on till Sept 2 at the Soka Ex­hi­bi­tion Hall (Ground Floor) and the Hong Wen Ex­hi­bi­tion Floor (7th Floor) of Wisma Ke­bu­dayaan SGM (No. 243, Jalan Bukit Bin­tang), Kuala Lumpur. The gallery is open daily from 11am-5pm, and is closed on Mon­days. For more in­for­ma­tion, call 03-2144 8686 or visit sgm.org. my. Else­where, Peter Liew: The Face ex­hi­bi­tion is on till Aug 26 at the Na­tional Vis­ual Arts Gallery in KL (No.2, Jalan Te­mer­loh, Off Jalan Tun Razak).

Peter Liew’s Ma­hatma Gandhi (oil on can­vas, 2015).

— Pho­tos: RAJA FAISAL HISHAN/The Star

Liew’s Chi­nese Tem­ple, Malacca (oil on canvs, 1979). (Right) ‘My art is ex­pressed in my char­ac­ter. A lot of friends and art lovers, they are sur­prised to see me, such a small-sized, very soft-spo­ken man. How come your paint­ings seem so vi­brant and rough?’ says Liew.

Liew’s Con­fu­cian Tem­ple West Dacheng Gate (oil on can­vas, 2016).

New Zealand Green­ery (oil on can­vas, 2015).

One of the artist’s early works called My Home Town, Padang River, Ta­pah, Perak (oil on can­vas, 1976).

On of the works in the Face sec­tion of the ex­hi­bi­tion, S. Kadaris­man (oil on can­vas, 2018).

My African Friend (oil on can­vas, 2018).

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