Writing as a New Zealander, it is interesting to consider how to best approach the work of Reagan Lee. My entire life so far has been experienced from this remote, South Pacific country, at least three hours flight from most Australian destinations, 12 hours from Hong Kong or Los Angeles, and more than 24 hours to London at the opposite side of the world. Despite regular travel, most of my primary encounters with art have either taken place in New Zealand or are filtered through my dominant experience of art from New Zealand. When encountering unfamiliar work, it is hard not to attempt to find meaning by trying to fit the work within the familiar frameworks of New Zealand and Western art histories. Although perhaps more appropriate, the bigger challenge for a New Zealand writer would be to explain how Lees work relates to developments in Asian art, particularly the great changes that have taken place in contemporary Chinese painting since the early 1990s, just as Lee was first establishing himself as a new graduate from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, as well as the radical social, economic and political changes that have transformed China over the same period.
Haiwang,with butch haircut, is the most impressive artist I have ever met.Although he isnt so tall, he looks full of power. With a simple and honest smile, he shows a qualities of simple and unadorned, which is a special qualities derive from the Loess Plate in the west of China. Apart from that, he never loses the original unruliness which is the qualities I appreciate most. It seems that the dogma of civilization can never expect to domestication such wild man. He is so low profile that I cant see the showy appearance as other artists always have. Though I didnt know well about his paintings at the first sight, I could determine that he is a man doing meaningful and useful things.
But there is much that can be gained from describing Lees work against the unlikely backdrop of the distant traditions of New Zealand. By trying to make these unusual connections, we find new ways to think about Lee, as well as new perspectives from which to consider the traditions of New Zealand. Through this discussion of similarities and differences, anchored by Lees paintings we are able to exchange ideas that help build a bridge between China and New Zealand.
I always thirst for such kind of paintings: although they are painted under the restrictions of strict order, the passion,the wildness and even the violence never stop rising to be showed ,and, whats more the paintings dont look so showy or exaggerative.Different from the stiff appearance cause by the consummate painting skills and without directly exposure or outwardly portray, Haiwangs paintings can bring you to touch the indomitable life and to feel the strong will and desire. I my opinion, that special spirit of artworks can not be create only by consummate skills or even the talent of the artist but also by the deepest secret of humanity that is the fighting between the free life and the strict orders. Only by such inside fightings,the artist can expose the tension, the thickness and the weight of life. There is no doubt that only those artists who born to get the gift of god, can express such soul of life. The obvious characteristics of these works is that they represent the whole personality of the artists!
Since 2003, Lee and his family have spent a substantial period of time living and working in New Zealand, still visiting on a regular basis. This much is not unusual. Lee joins a long line of migrant people who have come to define New Zealands multicultural population, from the first settlement of the indigenous Maori people 700 years ago, to the arrival of Europeans in the 18th century and countless groups since. In the late 19th century, many Chinese arrived to work on goldfields, most coming from Guangdong province, many Polynesians labourers arrived in New Zealand from the 1950s, and renewed immigration from throughout Asia has become widespread in recent decades, as well as from many other parts of the world. (In a 2013 census, China was listed as the third most common country of birth for resident New Zealanders after New Zealand and the United Kingdom, and followed by India, Australia, South Africa, Fiji, Samoa, Philippines and South Korea.)
In such an impetuous society in China，most of the works dont relate to the painters real personalities.They just paint the pictures as applying a formula, think as simple as a child, and result in some plain and rigid conceptions. The lively personalities which may be full of experiences are hidden, I dont think that can be called art.
Many of these stories are now represented by a range of New Zealand artists with different ethnic backgrounds, some born in New Zealand to first, second or older generation parents, while others have arrived in New Zealand as young adults for the purpose of study or with parents seeking work. For many of them, there is a constant questioning of cultural identity, recognising that they are now considered foreign in both their country of origin and in New Zealand.
I was attracted by Haiwangs albums at the first sight. The works are powerful, unadorned, and freely painted as violent storm. Although, he wields the painting brushes without too much thinking, he can control the brushes properly and make the paintings look dignified and implicit. They are really a perfect combination of talent and passion and bush some original feelings to you as if you can feel the power of the paintings. Except those paintings which are some abstract bodies of women and some impromptu works, all of the other paintings are those I have thirsted for a long time.They unfold the replete life vividly and are full of touching sincereness. It was really a feast for eyes. I couldnt speak out any word after I saw them and just went to find my cigarette. Especially when I saw the two of the paintings of women bodies, I was totally touched as if got an electric shock and my tears could not stop shedding. I seemed to see such a scene: A giant black bear moves forward the forest where there is full of thorns, and also a mysterious spring. There is a feeling of tremble and giddiness that cant be described and shared. And that bear is as the wild Haiwang himself. His paintings are as straightforward and enthusiastic as himself. No modification, no dogmas(but well controlled) and no the so-called artistic tongue or the fashion tongue, Haiwang is like a vital creature grow in a wild but fertile land which has never been invaded by the civilization.
It is not clear whether Lee has specifically studied artists from New Zealand but Wendy Harsant, writing for a 2010 exhibition at Aucklands NorthArt Gallery, notes similarities to the landscapes of leading New Zealand modernist painter Toss Woollaston (1910-1998), likely from a common influence from French impressionism. Harsant also observes in Lees portraits of Maori subjects, similarities to the work of colonial painter Charles Goldie (1870-1947), who at the time felt he was documenting a dying culture. For Lee, the observation of these local reference points situates him in a time and place, responding to active images and ideas.
I can still remember a small painting. The tone of that paint is extremely dark, however, you can see an eye-catching white piece in the right corner, which is not the subject of the painting.Certainly, that white piece will deflect the point of sight, so you can see how complex, risky and ingenious the composition of that painting will be. I just saw such composition in one of Peiermeikes paintings. It can be sure that Haiwangs ability doesnt just limit to his feeling and passion and that he also has the ability to deliberate rationally. However, there is no doubt that he is expert in the former.
Among Lees drawings and sketches from New Zealand is a series of images of rugby players. Rugby is a popular sport in New Zealand that often dominates the media, especially at the time of these drawings when New Zealand was host to the international Rugby World Cup and rugby promotion and coverage saturated the country. As mass-produced imagery, it becomes a kind of pop art, much like the ubiquitous American flag for Jasper Johns, or Lees own paintings of Michael Jackson, who had just died and had also taken on an increased iconic status. Through a story as universally understood as Michael Jacksons, Lee is able to make a connection with his environment and his own experience. But unlike Andy Warhols depersonalised factory-like mass-productions of figures like Marilyn Munro, Lee adopts an expressive style to assert his own process and presence through constant obsessive production.
Once, I had the honor to watch Haiwang painting pictures. The man who always speak a lot with a big voice seems to change into another man as soon as he sit before the easel. He stared at the white canvas with ecstasy silently as if he was accumulating the energy and waited to erupt instantaneously. Unexpectedly, he wielded the brush, concentrated his energy on the brush and forgot the world around him(off course, including me). Interestingly, I have seen lots of painters painting, including my husband, but only when I see Haiwang painting, will my blood boils with indignation. I seem to become a high pressure tank and itch to wield the brush to release my pressure. If there is no brush and canvas, it should be a horrible suffering.
Since his death, Michael Jackson has become a melancholic icon, a new pop-saint that becomes the subject of tragic shrines that remind us of mortality, a theme that recurs in much of Lees work. In Lees nude studies, there is a focus on fertility that emerges from an emphasis on the female form and genitalia. They are dark, primal and raw, highlighted with traces of red like a bloody life force. His landscapes are equally darkened, usually with just a glimmer of light like a beacon of hope. One work features a reddened unborn child in a dark crevasse, light beckoning from above and connected by umbilical cord to the landscape. It is reminiscent of Maori painter Robyn Kahukiwa, who references local creation stories and the blood of birth, life and death through reddened landscapes. Kahukiwa creates bloody lifelines that remind us of the Maoris sacred connections to the landscape that has played an important role in New Zealand colonial politics.
That mysterious feeling comes only when I resonate with those fearless maniacs such as Suetin, Van Gogh, Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche. According to that unforgettable experience, I am sure that Haiwang has the same kind of DNA as those maniacs though they are not in the same culture background. That is a terrific inborn gift, once if the artist had the gift, he would has endless inspirations and energy to create fantastic works, so you can see how bright his future would be! Once I joked that if Haiwang was a car, the motor would be strong enough for him to reach a magnificent level.