In Taiwan, reinterpreting Europe's master painters

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.

In a July interview at this Taipei studio, Lee said he had just finished basic training and was about to report for the 10-month military stint that's still mandatory for young Taiwanese men because of the threat from China.

He had a deep tan and buzz-cut from training, and wore stylish flip-flops, red-framed Ray-Ban glasses, cargo shorts and a T-shirt with a Charlie's Angels silhouette and the English words "I feel welcome here," which he said was his brother's.

"I got a lot skinnier," in basic training, he said. "Now I can wear my younger brother's clothes."

Basic training was a big adjustment.

"If I was younger I could immediately enter this kind of life," Lee said. "But since I'm older, I couldn't stop thinking about outside things — what my friends were doing, what they were painting, what exhibits they were mounting."

He found ways to adapt — writing long letters, getting up at 4:30 in the morning so he could have some space and time to himself. His drill sergeant found out he was an artist and asked him to redecorate and fix up a disordered lounge, which spared Lee more unpleasant chores. He painted a portrait of the sergeant.

Lee's studio doubles as a classroom space for his father's art classes, and is stocked with the younger Lee's paintings, art books crammed on tall shelves, huge blown-up photographs from which he works, classical busts, a Giant racing bicycle slung on the wall in back. Lee sat at a table and explained his technique.

The series of paintings that won him attention, "King's Game," were inspired by humorous twists on the masters. Caravaggio's "The Supper at Emmaus" inspired Lee's "Toss the Dice" and "Mah-jongg." Lee's "Prince's Dessert" echoes Manet's "Olympia." His betel nut beauty is painted in the style of a saint.

He started to paint from elaborately staged, carefully lit photos, using friends as models. Some of his paintings come off as gags, albeit rendered in exquisite detail.

"I don't like things that are too serious, and bore everyone," he said. "I want to take very simple and common subjects and make them very 'jingcai'," said Lee, using a word that translates roughly as "brilliant" or "exquisite." "I want to paint things that people can understand. I don't think art should be so serious."

"You can think it's not high art, it's low art," he continued. "But in the contemporary art world, people don't care so much about that. So we have more freedom."

Lee went on to paint the series "Heroes' True Colors," showing fat men peeling out of superheroes' outfits, and a "Fighting Nymphs" series of scantily clad women, many also overweight. ("I like painting people that aren't good-looking," he said.)

He said he's part of a loose group of young, like-minded painters, including Lo Chan-peng, Yu Wei-yi, and Huang Pei-huang, who both reference and at times slyly mock Taiwan identity and youth culture.

Lo does ultra-realistic, photo-like paintings of Taiwan's "strawberry tribe," referring to those born in the 1980s; Yu paints young Taiwanese men in bathroom scenes; Huang paints up-close images of fatty flesh, as well as mutilated images of Barbie dolls and Doraemon, the Japan-spawned blue robot cat from the future that's wildly popular in Taiwan. The four were featured in a 2007 exhibit called "Fancying self as Taiwanese."

"When you talk about 'Taiwanese,' it's easy to get political," said Lee. "But our attitude and that of politicians is far apart. We're more indifferent, we have a more relaxed attitude."

Lee said the group is interested in exhibiting in China, but hasn't yet looked into it ("the mainland is very sensitive," said Lee.) And two of the group's members — Lee and Lo — will have to finish up their military service before they can figure out the future. "Our group hasn't yet thought about the next step," said Lee.