Emotional detachment and physical fragmentation repeatedly occur across Gan Chin Lee’s distinctly Malaysian tableaus. Subtle disturbances through first person perspective and multi paneled images punctuate his narrative sequences to become a collage of painterly sensibility and social observation. Negotiated by the artist’s own personal experiences his genre paintings reveal the frustrations and hopes of the contemporary Malaysian condition through a uniquely local setting of the mamak stall. Fondly regarded by all Malaysians, the mamak is a site to discuss, lament and laugh at the state of the country. Censorship and controlled media have also subsequently transformed it into more than just a place to drink teh tarik and eat our favourite foods. Rather, through its inconspicuous familiarity it has become a 24 hour comfort zone for Malaysians to congregate and debate their frustrations amongst the safety of friends.
Such feelings reflect the numerous contradictions of the Malaysian socio-political landscape. At the heart of this dilemma are issues of multiculturalism that promotes Malaysia as ‘truly Asia’ but are quite clearly the nation’s biggest cultural strength and political weakness. The inability of government to transcend destructive racially divisive political policies results in a never-ending state of tense inertia. We long for change and yet neither government nor public self-agency seem to enable the necessary positive paradigm shifts. The longer such impotency continues the more it translates into feelings of jaded anxiety amongst the rakyat especially in younger generations of Malaysians. Gan keenly observes these sentiments as they take place in the mamak through numerous moments of sketching, discussion and interaction with the artist’s friends, colleagues and students from the university where he teaches. Reimagining these scenes back in the studio he presents a tightly composed, richly detailed community of characters, interiors and exteriors of local stalls across KL, Klang and PJ.
Situated within a predominantly Chinese subject matter as reflected by the artist’s own culture and ethnicity, Gan’s references his teenage and adult experiences of mamak culture in Malaysia. With relatively little social outlets for teenagers the mamak is one of the few places to go for entertainment. However, rather than choosing moments of light hearted amusement Gan presents glimpses of boredom and stagnancy. His figures seem wistful, confused or simply wasting time before they have to return to their own homes. Intense background activity does nothing to reduce their isolation from one another and the overall sentiment of his work is one of quiet solitude.
These poetic visions are created through a keen understanding of dramatic artistic influences from Antonio Lopez Garcia and David Hockney through to European Grand Masters such as Velasquez, Caravaggio, Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi. Such an informed approach allows Gan the vocabulary to play with motifs from art history and popular café culture scenes whilst developing his own unique approach to technique and subject matter. Notably, what prompts further examination of the artist’s works are the subtle and surreal technical shifts that destabilise our viewing experience. In I’m in a Mamak Stall Gan creates a monumental vision of the everyday. Through his use of first person perspective, as if audiences were looking at once through the eyes of the artist and of someone standing behind him, we see through mainly frontal but slightly peripheral vision. However, rather than a seamless transition of forms what is presented is a composite of fragmented panels from different settings. It is a jarring visual feeling united only by the continuation between the right and middle images of the artist’s disjointed arms and legs as he sits purveying the scene. The slight curvature of the walls and inward tilt of the setting undulate the eye to create a sense of the surreal and dreamlike.
Gan states that the collaging of multiple scenes is a process of fragmentation and recomposition in order to create an ‘incomplete painting’. This reflects the limitations of human sight in that we are never able to view things in their entirety whilst also attempting to liberate the viewer from this by presenting different perspectives in one work. Perhaps this could be taken even further to discuss notions of recognition, what do we choose to observe in busy scenes, who do we notice and who do we ignore as our eyes are tempted in multiple directions simultaneously? How does this selection work in the cultural context of Malaysia, who is notable and who is invisible?
This process of fragmentation is taken even further in works such as I’m on the Way of Turning Back and I’m in Papa Rich. Here images are created in clearly separated panels that form diptychs and triptychs. Singular figures sit facing the viewer, while details of the artist’s seated image guide us into the frame. Scale and viewpoints once more are not seamless but slightly altered to create in between spaces or ruptures that act as physical breakages and visual focus points. Mimetic of cinema camera angles it also serves the drama of perspective. This enhances the distance between the foreground figure of the artist and his companions as they contemplate their separate existential questions or entertain themselves through mindless games on mobile phones.
The climax of Gan’s body of work is undoubtedly Status Anxiety a clear evolution of I’m in a Mamak Stall. The artist has edited his figures into singular and small groupings over four panels that form a disjointed running tableau scene. Subjects stare in multiple directions inwards and outside of the picture plane or close their eyes as Chinese newspapers that discuss MCA internal fighting gently fall from laps. Viewpoints lower and rise as led by the lines of tiled floors and walls to create more exaggerated perspectives. Although constructed as one single work each image could also stand alone in its own right as the ordinary become symbolic statements of Malaysian life.
The strength of Gan Chin Lee’s work lies in the way he creates his images through first hand sketching out of the studio, and the shared experiences between artist and subject. His command of draftsmanship, composition and experiments in perspective all provide the necessary tools to continue the artist’s curiosity about his Malaysian context. Situating his vision within the mamak he presents a cross section of Malaysian life that is at once harmonious and isolated from one another based on race politics propagated by the government. However instead of finding solutions to these seemingly never ending problems, Gan Chin Lee’s mamak scenes of ordinary Malaysians presents a sense of anxiety, as we wait for answers to the ongoing questions of local life.