The artist Win Pe is clearly something of a renaissance man in his range of artistic interests and concerns which show no signs of abating as he approaches his 80th birthday next year.
The Beikthnao gallery hosted this exhibition and while they have exhibited Win Pe’s work in the past, this is the first time they have shown a one-man show of his work. The viewer could be forgiven for thinking this is a retrospective, such is the range, accomplishment and diversity of the work on display but in actuality the forty paintings on display are the fruit of recent work, it’s a pointer to the way Win Pe works and also his approach to painting. Win Pe’s canvasses are worked on with acrylics and typically each averaging 36 X 36 inches. There are a number of series of paintings; one series is fresh interpretations of zodiac symbols.
In “Leo” a virtually expressionless woman in traditional Burmese longyi is chained to a lion, the lion has a menacing or slightly impish expression and on closer examination its ‘legs’ have been substituted with the arms and legs of a human. In keeping with Win Pe’s Burmese motifs, the lion’s foot is wearing a traditional Burmese sandal.
I’ve mentioned motifs and there are many but one that’s characteristic throughout all these paintings is a very unusual rendering of eyes. They strongly engage and appear to scrutinize the viewer, animals too have similar stylized eyes and when I asked the artist to comment, he made the distinction that ‘while the human eyes are looking out, the animal eyes are looking elsewhere’. Win Pe’s approach to painting is like his approach to music (he’s a seasoned musician, loves jazz and plays the flute and Burmese xylophone), he prefers to improvise the visual elements of painting and works with perceived rhythms and melodic lines. With a process such as this, ‘subject is not so important’ he daringly adds.
Win Pealso brings his unusual technique to everyday life such as Pot Seller, Three Musicians and Fisherman – where the ‘fisherman’ is actually three women in a boat who appear as mythical and almost as sirens silently (they have no mouths) calling. In these paintings birds populate and appear peripherally and the crow is favoured again as a motif.
Lastly, Win Pe’s landscapes are particularly deft and absorbing and in many cases are idealized versions of Burmese landscape. His series on Mandalay (his hometown) moats and depictions of the Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwaddy) show just how painterly Win Pe can be and it’s an unusual style, redolent of a rooted Chagall and perhaps a marriage of Matisse thrown in. Ultimately it’s unique and its timelessness explained by the painter when he mentions ‘All my landscapes are banked in memory’.
When I mentioned ‘renaissance’ earlier, Win Pe as well as being an accomplished musician is also a distinguished radio broadcaster, writer, film maker and translator but in this instance we should be grateful for his fidelity and contribution to painting.
The Beikthano Gallery has done an excellent job in displaying Win Pe’s work, spread over two ground-floor galleries the work has been excellently hung and more importantly, each painting has been given its space and narrative space in relation to the ‘series’ paintings.