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In Taiwan, reinterpreting Europe's master painters

A young painter is one of several artists boosting Taiwan's identity with classic techniques.

TAIPEI, Taiwan — About seven years ago, when he was just 21 years old, Taiwan painter Lee Cheng-dao and his father — also an accomplished painter — took a trip to the famous Louvre Museum in Paris.

Lee had embarked on a painting career, and his father wanted him to see the best of the best. For several days, father and son studied the masters: Rembrandt, Ingres, John Singer Sargent, Rubens.

"It's very difficult for original paintings to come to Taiwan," said Lee, in an interview at his Taipei studio. "So we went from painting to painting, looking at all of them. The museum was open from something like 10 in the morning to 10 in the evening, and we spent it all there — eating lunch and dinner at the museum."

Over the next few years, back in Taiwan, Lee began to marry those masters' high techniques of light and shadow with earthy, at times risque subject matter — a group of mahjong players, pool players, over-weight people, karaoke-hall girls.

He often throws in the marks of "taike" culture, a once derogatory term for low-class Taiwanese culture that's since become a hip and trendy handle: bottles of Taiwan Beer, tattoos, flip-flops, short-sleeved floral-print shirts, cheap cigarettes, scooter helmets.

"Taike culture is Taiwan's most unique culture; what Taiwan has developed itself — its most impressive culture," said Lee. "It's very grass-roots, and very tacky, but it fits Taiwan's own style."

The resulting blend of high technique and low subject matter has earned him recognition as one of Taiwan's top young emerging painters, with a whimsically ironic style. He's one of several young artists who are both reflecting and promoting a distinctly Taiwanese identity that's grown especially strong in the last decade.

Lee had a group show in 2007 with three other artists also loosely linked with the "taike" trend, then his first solo exhibition in 2009.

Painting more down-to-earth, everyday subjects goes back at least to Jean-Francois Millet, who shocked his stuffy contemporaries by painting peasants working in the fields instead of the conventional subject matter of gods and heroes, Biblical figures, or kings and emperors.

But Lee's subject matter didn't immediately win everybody over. Among the skeptics was his most important teacher in college in Taipei.

"My teacher felt my paintings weren't at all impressive," said Lee. "They were too un-serious."

Lee's dad took some convincing, too.

"At first he thought, you should paint more beautiful, more grand subject matter, not such joking things," said Lee. "But later, he felt it wasn't so bad — and there are people who will buy these paintings. Today's people aren't the same, they can accept this type of art."

Indeed, they've snatched it up: Lee says he's sold 80 percent of his paintings, earning enough to pursue his art full-time. At least until Taiwan's military service obligations intervened.