Anthony Chan Sai Weng was born 1950 in Penang. Art is to him, even as a child, instinctive; with an inherent artistic gift, Anthony went on to have his first exhibition at the age of 16 at the Penang Museum & Art Gallery. He continued to be involved in art in his career, but a different genre than you’d expect. He initially taught art in secondary schools then for years worked a spectrum of creative professions including graphic designer and animator for TV Pendidikan (Education TV), an illustrator and cartoonist, as well as art consultant upon request. While this aspect of his career is a saga of its own, what we see of Anthony’s oeuvre today is the culmination of his treasured ‘night-job’.
To escape the chaos and worries of the nine-to-five, of catering to client’s whims and being constrained by expectations and norms, Anthony painted in his spare time. He kept ‘work’ and ‘paint’ intentionally and carefully separated, progressing in each independently. While collecting awards for his design and animation work on one hand, Anthony was exhibiting and painting actively on the other. Although having exhibited many times, Anthony only had his first solo at age 32 due to the knotty process of getting approval from his then-employers (the government) to hold a solo exhibition.
When Anthony finally decided to commit to painting full-time, it was a decision based on a simple but resounding truth: happiness is in the act of creation, more precisely, in uninhibited creation. It is a decision he has never regretted.
It is customary for artists to perfect their technique gradually over the years, and it is our benefit to be able to view the very best gems of Anthony’s journey, snippets of his nine series spanning 30 years. There are five from each series, except the latest, No Boundaries, of which there are ten. Let’s walkthrough from the first series: Ink Drawings (1981 – 1986).
If you, like me, raised eyebrows at the stark stylistic difference, consider that these drawings are the groundwork for Anthony’s later established style. Painstakingly-rendered tight linework spaced out to suggest landscapes and weaved together to create forms, Anthony’s ink drawings remind of the intricate woodcut illustrations of such greats as Albrecht Dürer, albeit a rather sci-fi version. The medium does not allow mistakes and its meticulous nature reflects a patient carving into permanence, which is the theme of this series: the preservation in time and of the cosmos and the unknown.
In the chronologically parallel The Aftermath Series (1983 – 1989), we begin to see the shared element from the Ink series that becomes a signature: lines. Lines whipping across a sea of colours, in Anthony’s own words: ‘to record my impression of change – change in the physical which affects the emotional and the spiritual’. There remains an order in the lineation, which is freed in The Transition Series (1989 – 1993) as neither rigid nor static, more evasive – they are passages of continuous modifications.
Those modifications are brought to a pinnacle in the Nature’s Rhapsody Series (1994 – 1996), coupled with Anthony’s love for the environment interpreted through his emotional encounter with nature. Showcasing the wonders of nature imbued with the intrusion of man, this depiction of nature in its rawest form can be compared to the cosmos he was illustrating in the Ink drawings, except where the latter speaks of its greatness through detail, the former shows it in a ‘bigger picture’ (if one can frame the universe at all) of delicious swirling colour and energy. In concise terms, Anthony chose to focus on essence rather than the minutia.
For the next three years is the Hidden Images series (1997 – 2000) that encourages viewers to see more beyond what is perceived, to contemplate the tussle between illusion and reality while finding one’s own actuality within it. It is a play on the ambiguity of meaning in abstract art and the oftentimes dismissive once-over uninformed audiences tend to do. Anthony cleverly compares this to the ‘hidden images’ of a person; how we can only understand more about someone if we know them beyond the first impression.
Portals Series (2001 – 2003) is Anthony’s most herculean effort yet. Combining abstract and realism proved to be extremely difficult; the exercise of getting the right balance between the two created swirling scapes that seem to alternate between the waking world and dreams . Though the results were impressive, Anthony solemnly opines that it is not something he’d attempt again.
In From a Distance (2004 – 2006), the artist draws from the harmony of man and nature, once again playing on the degrees between first impressions and close inspection. The year after, Anthony appears to have collected his cards to produce the stunning Langkawi Geopark (2007 -2008) series. Each piece is rich in texture and colour, mirroring the stratum of rock formations to inspire a spiritual and emotional elucidation. Throughout, you’ll see the consistent suggestion of movement and metamorphosis occurring on layers upon layers of colour, that finally comes together to settle marvellously in No Boundaries.
For No Boundaries, Anthony explored local rainforests and researched extensively on rainforests around the world, ‘downloading’ all the information into his mind before he begins painting. Anthony abstracts the many layers of the rainforest: of the dead and the living, the interaction of flora and fauna, of the millions of species, all just discernable in the cacophony of brushstrokes.
Tracking his progression, we can see that Anthony began with realism, then to the decorative, semi-modern, modern, semi-abstract and finally, settled upon abstract art. It is the style that he derives most satisfaction from. Without its strong conceptual and ideological objectives, Anthony’s works would have been merely whimsical pursuits and, as a disappointing lot of abstract art identifies themselves as, ‘happy accidents’. Fortunately, there can be no mistaking the intellectuality and effort of Anthony’s craft; this is one artist you won’t find embarking on the ‘paint first, think later’ route.