Paintings by Chen Wei Meng
In October, cool air lifts up from the Asian continent, travels south over the Pacific Ocean, takes in evaporated water, furthers its path over the South China Sea and towards the north east of the Malay Peninsula. There it looms in large grey clouds until it breaks down, swamps the earth and blows turmoil upon the sea. For days and weeks at end, winds speed up to 60km an hour and rows of waves roll, reaching 3 meters in height. Boats cannot go out anymore, the sea is empty of humans and nature takes over.
To Chen Wei Meng, who spent his childhood on the East Coast small town of Dungun in the state of Terengganu, the spectacle of the ocean was a daily performance. “The school was there and the sea was there“, said the 46 year old painter in a recent interview, putting his hands side by side. Little did he know in those early days that the monsoon would later become a source of inspiration that would reveal the full extent of his maturity as a painter.
After years of exploration and learning from Malaysia to Europe and working as a comic strips artist, Wei Meng, then totally devoted to painting, would often go back to Terengganu. In a previous solo exhibition “Two three six” (2009), he depicted the coastline in vivid blue, stark orange, and white. At that time, he realized that the weather itself deserved a whole series. Two years after, Wei Meng has returned once more to the coast, and now introduces the North East monsoon in thirteen emotional and carefully crafted scenes. The monsoon is like “a friend” he said, that he has found again.
Painting the monsoon may appear a matter of simple composition and minimum colour, explained the soft spoken artist, but to express the essence of it, a different approach is needed. Wei Meng resumed traveling on the coast, as a visitor would do, not thinking of painting, until his sentiment reached the level of a personal relationship, as if the monsoon were a living being. He then attained the state of mind that allowed him to paint the monsoon, free to impart directly on the canvas the intimacy his heart felt.
And aptly, stepping into Wei Meng’s studio in Sri Kembangan near Kuala Lumpur was to be transported by the edge of the ocean, under the immensity of the grey sky, hearing the rushing of the rolling waves and feeling the relentless wind on the skin. In most of the scenes, the viewer faces the sea, the sky and the land rendered in nuances of grey, yellowish grey and pale green evoking winter in the tropics. Like the changing winds of the monsoon, each painting has a powerful and different mood.
Wei Meng has chosen various scales. In the large painting “Arrival”, the monsoon obliterates everything else. Columns of cumulus, moved by air masses fill the sky, putting a lid over a desolate lagoon. The land, strewn with flotsams mixed with torn roots, closes on both sides of a horizon barely marked by a line of waves.
Large scale painting in the fast drying acrylic medium requires speed and dexterity. Wei Meng had previously perfected his technique to the point of producing Salvador Dali-like shapes floating on smooth backgrounds. For “Arrival” and other large paintings from the series such as “Prologue” or “Shelter”, Wei Meng covers the broad canvases with strokes of varied lengths and turns. At times wide stripes of pigment travel from one side to the other side of a 295 cm long frame. “I even tried to put the canvas on the floor to control the flow of the colour, but I had to go back to the classic erect canvas”, said Wei Meng, his hand held in sweeping gestures. Like a musician tunes his strings, the painter carefully holds his brushes, playing with the colour’s fluidity. Physical energy as well as mental preparation is needed to achieve the desired graphic effect.
The partition of three smaller paintings -Symphony 1, 2 and 3- tells of the threatening power of the monsoon: in prelude, rollers break over a desultory barrier made of rocks and continue their course. In fact, the rocks are already part of the waves’ path, doomed to be one day submerged and sunk. In the second part, casuarinas trees frame a calmly balanced landscape where a green sea hurls waves that spread in white foam on the warm coloured sand. In the final scene, an uprooted tree is delicately drawn on the background of the raging sea.
When working, Wei Meng takes thousands of photographs; but photographs, he says, cannot erase the distance between the viewer and the weather. So he does not copy photographs but borrows optical tools from the photographic panoply to create the desired sensual impact.
In “Prologue”, a gale is impending. A wide angle lens effect brings the bare foreground close to the viewer while opening a panorama where the story develops, from the beheaded trunks on the left to the coconut trees still facing the winds on the right. Exceeding the limits of human vision, the optical effect creates an oneiric atmosphere that is reinforced by the composition of the painting, when the landscape is framed in a diamond shape and seen as if from a window in a dream. In other scenes, lens-like distortion on the edges of the canvases mimics the whirling of the wind rushing around the vegetation. In “Batu Rakit 12.38 pm”, the distortion makes the clouds seem to touch the sand and give the viewer a sense of claustrophobia, leaving only a slit of liquid matter in the middle of the painting.
By contrast, in “Sunny Afternoon of Monsoon” – another large scale work – the sky has been cleared but for a few diaphanous cirrus fleeing away in an intense blue sky. Wei Meng’s rendering evokes irresistibly the magic of a polarizing lens.
Wei Meng’s predilection for the intuitive and the unconscious results in a feeling of otherworldliness that permeates these interpretations of the monsoon. The artist’s bare views are imbued with a Zen quality where various meanings can be deciphered. The actors are the earth, water and air, fire is in the hidden sun, wood is in the flotsams and in the trees.
In “One perfect day” and “Pantai Ketapang”, a line of waves in the horizon marks the boundary between two contrasting protagonists: the mental landscapes of the ethereal cloudy sky and the prosaic materiality of the land. Both paintings present a narrative recurrent in Wei Mengs’ works: the coexistence in life of parallel paths or of different planes that make equally valid demands on the soul.
Then, again, there are the clouds. Clouds, says science, are micro-particles of earth and dust ascending around droplets of humidity raised by the heat from the sun into the air. In Wei Mengs’ work, they are also the presence of other realms symbolized by their vertiginous heights, their depth and their movement. “If you want the marvelous, look at the cloudy sky” teaches the Zen Biyan Lu.
Beyond the classic painting tradition of European marines, Flemish skies or Japanese waves, Wei Meng succeeds in rendering the particular persona of the Malaysian north east monsoon. One of the reasons of this is that, in the course of his last study trip on the coast, he had re-connected with the attraction the sea had long exerted on him, to the point, he confided, that he had once even entertained the ambition of becoming a fisherman. He had asked a sailor Terengganu: “Can I too, go out to sea?….” and, reading the facial expression of the elder man,” Am I too old?” he said…”That… yes.” was the elliptic answer. The real –subtext- dialogue was probably: “I fish. You paint”.
In “Shelter” -a straightforward landscape, any distortion is corrected. The shapes of the clouds and the pale leaves of the medicinal lengundi are reproduced with equal fervor. A lone platform stands, its nipah palm roof flapping in the wind. The flimsy structure remains -a witness of the past and the promise of the future return of men on the stage. Indeed, in ”Vigil” the last -and stunning- painting of the series, a group of women and children are depicted standing, looking towards the sea.
Wei Meng is aware of the ambivalence of his beautiful and fearsome “friend”. His scenes are truly rooted in the life on the East coast, but their realist rendition is wrapped in a dream-like aura that imparts the series with a fascinating appeal and Wei Meng paintings are as haunting as the monsoon he paints.
The secret behind the unassuming artist’s tour de force is perhaps best summarized in his own words: ”I am doing a simple thing. I am doing it seriously”.