Performance artist Lee Wen unveils paintings

Sixty-five artworks of Lee Wen (above) will be on display at Songs Unsung.
Sixty-five artworks of Lee Wen (above) will be on display at Songs Unsung.ST PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN

Hunched now with illness and age, Lee Wen - who made his name as a pioneering performance artist, taking on stereotypes and telling tales of loss and yearning with his body - is lifting the veil on a lesser-known side of his work.

His paintings and drawings will be on display at Songs Unsung, his first solo exhibition at a commercial gallery here. It opened last Wednesday and runs till Nov 21.

"I'm nervous," the veteran artist, who in 2005 was awarded the Cultural Medallion, confesses with a laugh. "It's my first time doing a show like this. But it's okay. My style is always to do everything like it's the first and last time."

If I don't use my hands to draw, paint or play the guitar each day, I feel like I haven't lived that day. It's a feeling I used to neglect, but now I'm so conscious that it's a gift.

LEE WEN, who has Parkinson's disease

The show at the iPreciation gallery in Cuscaden Road features 65 pieces of artwork - from paintings on canvas to drawings on paper done with colour pencils - selected from his oeuvre over the last 25 years. More than half of the works on display were created in the last two years.

Lee, 58, is best known for his performance art pieces, such as the Yellow Man series which he started in 1992 and which features him stripped to his briefs, his entire body covered in yellow paint in an exaggeration of cultural stereotypes.

iPreciation gallerist Helina Chan says: "We knew Lee Wen has been spending a lot of his private time drawing as he wanted to express his inner side... We felt it was important for us to show what he was doing."

For Lee, drawing and painting has been a journey of rediscovery and reaffirmation. About eight years back, walking became a struggle. Even lifting his fingers was a chore. For a man whose entire body was an instrument for his art, it felt like his body was failing him.

  • VIEW IT / LEE WEN: SONGS UNSUNG

  • WHERE: iPreciation, 50 Cuscaden Road

    WHEN: Till Nov 21, 10am to 7pm (Monday to Friday), 11am to 6pm (Saturday), by appointment on Sunday and public holiday

    ADMISSION: Free

    INFO: www.ipreciation.com

Lee chalked it up to scoliosis, but later found out it was Parkinson's disease, a brain disorder that causes tremors and difficulty in movement.

Medication slowly helped him regain some control over his body.

"Because of my encounter with Parkinson's, because of that stage of my life where I felt like I couldn't move, at this stage, I'm very inspired to use my hands to make art," Lee says.

"If I don't use my hands to draw, paint or play the guitar each day, I feel like I haven't lived that day. It's a feeling I used to neglect, but now I'm so conscious that it's a gift."

Among the works on display is This Blue Again, a set of 13 new drawings created during his residency at the Nanyang Technological University Centre for Contemporary Art over the past year, accompanied by an original poem.

The fluid, melancholy pieces in vivid shades of blue are an invitation to step into a dream, says Lee.

Visitors to the exhibition can also view his paintings. Two early 1990 ones, Crucifixion and Hard Rain, done up in thick, powerful brushstrokes, are on show.

"When you are painting and drawing, moving pencil and brush across paper, it's also like performing," says Lee. "My work is about making visual art. Even when I'm performing, at the back of my mind, I'm always composing an image."

Prices for the works on show range from $1,800 for drawings to $13,000 for fine art photography.

A set of his early drawings from 1978 to 1979, also on display, have been purchased by a local collector.

Pointing at The Call Of Red, a series of photographic prints that capture his 2013 performance where he slips into a red dress and wig, morphing into his mother and expressing her longing for her long-gone husband, Lee explains: "The exhibition is also about the re-mediatising of ephemeral works.

"I've found it necessary, being a performance artist, to make something fleeting into something lasting for discussion."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 03, 2015, with the headline 'Performance artist Lee Wen unveils paintings'. Print Edition | Subscribe