RICK LEONG: Imaginary Landscapes
In lush, large-scale panels, this Victoria painter draws on traditional Chinese technique to create something thoroughly contemporary.
By Monique Westra
Victoria-based artist Rick Leong’s talent and originality were recognized relatively early in his career. One of his paintings was acquired by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts while he was still a student at Concordia, where he graduated in 2007. The following year, he was a finalist in the nationally touring RBC Canadian Painting Competition, and he was taken on by Parisian Laundry Gallery, in Montreal. It’s an impressive start, but one that came out of a long search for focus.
When he dropped out of high school and left home at 16, Leong was adrift. “I went from one job to another just trying to fend for myself,” he says. “I did everything from tree planting to cooking to cleaning, whatever I could do and often several jobs at once. I was gaining experience, taking life as it comes until I just got tired and wanted to focus.” Leong came from an creative family of writers and musicians. Growing up, he loved art as a hobby, so after a few years of wandering around the lower mainland, he had an epiphany of sorts. “I knew that if I didn’t make one solid effort to follow my passion for art, I would regret it for the rest of my life.”
The result of that effort — at 35 Leong is in the early stages of a mature, rigorously intellectual career as a painter of extraordinarily seductive and lush, large-scale landscapes. His work seems entirely original and fresh, even as it’s grounded in tradition. “He’s obviously influenced by, and drawing from, Chinese and Canadian painting traditions but he’s doing it with such a contemporary sensibility,” says Nicole Stanbridge, curator at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, where Leong will have his first public-gallery solo show this summer. “He wants to understand where he comes from as an artist and as a painter.”
This exhibition, called The Phenomenology of Dusk, is the result of both chance and intent. Stanbridge distinctly recalls that she happened upon an article about Leong while researching another project a few years ago. At the time, she was struck with the beauty and complexity of his work but was too busy to find out more about the artist, who was still living in Montreal at the time. When Leong sent a submission proposal to AGGV last year, Stanbridge immediately recognized him as the same artist she admired before.
The Phenomenology of Dusk is based on a number of detailed pencil drawings created during a Can Serrat Residency in Barcelona in January 2012. The experience renewed Leong’s love of drawing and he decided to incorporate his drawings into his painting practice. “They’re very intricate and involved,” he says. “I feel that if I can lose myself in the making of the work, then the spectator can lose himself in the viewing of it.” All the paintings in the exhibition have a pronounced graphic quality and demonstrate Leong’s virtuosity and his labour-intensive creative process. Although he has a general idea at the onset, the graphite drawing on panel unfolds organically, gradually unfurled from his psyche and his imagination. Leong says, “I like to think of it as a dialogue with the work as I’m making it.”
There are a couple of conflicting layers implicit in Leong’s meticulous and cleanly articulated style of painting. Its crisp linearity, intricacy and subtle colouration are reminiscent of the illustrations of 18th and 19th century naturalists, whose small, precise renderings of plants and animals documented visually verifiable data, demonstrating an absolute belief in science and truth in nature. Leong has appropriated the look and some of the techniques of objective scientific drawings, albeit on a much larger scale, to convey his very subjective, imaginary and intangible visions.
His extraordinarily complex and compelling landscapes seem to originate in a natural world that is both familiar and strange. Leong’s monumental oil paintings are dazzlingly detailed but are ultimately cryptic and unknowable amalgams, “a synthesis of inspiration, observation, memory and imagination,” as he describes it. The sense of mystery inherent in Leong’s work is related to traditional Chinese landscape paintings, which were often shrouded in mist.
At the same time, he takes his place in the long-standing Canadian legacy of landscape, though his works aren’t about specific places. They recall only generic characteristics that can be associated with types of landscapes in different regions of the country, creating as Stanbridge observes, “a record reiterated through memory and emotion.” Though most of Leong’s paintings are idealized and imaginary, much of his creative inspiration takes place on long walks and hikes. His paintings incorporate his memories and feelings about time and place.
Each of Leong’s paintings is evocative, layered in meaning, suggestive of narrative, mysterious and deliberately open to interpretation. In The Phenomenology of Dusk, each work reveals echoes of an outer world, transformed by imagination and personal experience. In his own articulate analysis, Leong writes “It is a manifested landscape that is at once an echo of the outer and a reflection of the inner. It is a metaphysical delving into the psyche, equally shrouded in darkness yet glimpsed with the illumination of insight and intuition.” In essence, Leong is fascinated by the flux of life, “the nebulous state of the unfixed.” His haunting landscapes feature birds and insects, flora and fauna as if in a dream.
Ambiguity is the central motif of his intelligent work, which often depicts dusk, a time of day perceived as an in-between zone, neither day nor night, when mysterious creatures appear and when fading light plays tricks on the eye and mind, a time he says is “...encouraging the imagination to form the visible from the invisible. It is the intersection between light and dark, the known and the unknown, the conscious and the subconscious.”
Perhaps Leong’s fascination with the state of being in-between is linked to his own heritage as a third-generation Chinese-Canadian. As a student, he was primarily interested in probing his dual identity, and was aware of the work of other Chinese-Canadian artists like Ken Lum, and contemporary Chinese artists like Ai Weiwei. But in his recent work, he’s much more interested in exploring philosophical and psychological issues with beautifully realized and lyrical works.
Leong’s solo exhibition is in the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria’s distinctive LAB space, a small gallery reserved for experimental, unusual and current contemporary art. Often, the art displayed in the LAB is so new that it’s seen in its completed form for the first time by curator and artist alike when the show is installed.
The working title for a new installation Leong is creating for this show is Mise en abyme, referring to the disorienting visual and psychological sensation of standing between mirrors, and seeing a reflection infinitely reproduced. The artist, whose intellectual work is informed by philosophy and literature, adapts the idea both literally — in the construction of his mirror-based installation — and conceptually. By actualizing a mise en abyme, Leong disrupts the viewer’s reality by suddenly immersing him in an illusory space and alternative world, a perceptual experience that’s at once real and surreal, tantalizingly elusive, shifting and cryptic.
In Leong’s installation, he’s placed a peep-hole in the centre of a flat panel that reveals a detailed and animated world, filled with realistically rendered insects, lichen and plants set into a completely encompassing, boundlessly receding space. The reflections of three mirrors give the installation the effect of infinity, a “strange loop” that reflects an image painted on the reverse of the panel. It’s a work about the disquiet of the abyss and the suspension of time and space.
Hypnagogia, painted this year, is a huge triptych, the largest of the four works in the AGGV show. Its format and subject reminiscent of Chinese screens and textiles, featuring the graceful airborne dance of butterflies and moths, insects of the day and night, transformational in fact and imagination. The insects take a haphazard, ascending flight in a landscape defined by the intertwining, and rhythmic bends of tree limbs and branches converging in a lacy descending cluster of lichen in the central panel. The uniform steel grey in the background is the colour of dusk, the central metaphor of the exhibition.
Rick Leong: The Phenomenology of Dusk, is on in the LAB Gallery at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, May 18 to August 6.