Breaking Free

When I was in my teens I used to have recurring dreams of taking flight – literally. I would lift off the ground, soar through the air, doing mid-aerial somersaults.

The freedom is boundless: I went where my inclinations led me – Paris, Mount Everest, Harbin, Kenya, the Dominican Republic… without needing a passport and the hassles of immigration checkpoints and customs.

Man’s inclinations to experience the magic of being able to fly stems from ancient fascinations with animals that can actually do so – birds. Yet if we dwell deeply into the subject, we begin to ask, “Are our feathered friends truly free?”

The Rufous-Backed Kingfishers are found only in Thailand, Malaysia and Brunei, even though Indonesia shares similar climatic and habitat conditions. The White-Fronted Tits have an even smaller geographical boundary, living only on the islands of Luzon and Mindanao in the Philippines.

Even birds that take to long distance migration habitually stay within generations of known geography. Swallows being one example: those that breed in Europe spend the winters only in Africa.

This brings to mind the age-old saying: what you do not know, you do not miss. So wild pigeons have fed on just seeds, berries, fruits, green leaves and shoots, as well as spiders and other insects.

Yet, the inclination of the still untamed common pigeons to be more adventurous in their diet have allowed them to move permanently into concrete jungles, feeding on scraps left on plates and crumbs dropped on the floors of cafes and restaurants.

This ability to transcend the confinement of habitat niches brings to mind Pablo Picasso when he moved from his rose period of creating naturalistic art that had defined the Western world since the Renaissance to painting “Les Demiselles d’Avignon”, which depicted five nude females with bodies composed of flat, splintered planes and faces inspired by Iberian sculpture and traditional African masks.

The crux for Picasso, and for all artists for that matter, is that new experiences and knowledge outside of his comfort zone had propelled him to break ground, and hence break free, in his artistic practice.

It is this essence that Jane Lee conveys with her current solo exhibition, “Freely, Freely”, at STPI – all in relation to her recent residency at this institute.

So I believe the “Caged Birds I” and “Caged Birds II” birthed there parody the security she has felt in all the years she has creatively and successfully pushed the limits of what constitutes an abstract painting. Their large casings may be as transparent as the acrylic sheets on which the multitude of feathered creatures is screen-printed within. Nonetheless, there is a glass ceiling.

Therefore, her residency, which involved learning about what STPI’s credentials and traditional expertise rests upon – namely print and papermaking, has relieved her of the need to think about her normal oeuvre.

This empowerment by new skills and knowledge may well have inspired her series of “Wings”. Crafted by assembling cotton paper handmade by STPI into what birds use to fly, they are a metaphor of the means with which she has found artistic liberation.

Her leap beyond the see-through ‘birdcage’ confines transverses from one end where she marries what she knows with what is new to that where she breaks completely free.

Hence, Jane’s series of “Coilings” involves an enmeshment of hand-coiled paper of various types, textures and colours, all held in twirl by stainless steel rods. Clearly, her springboard for these creations is her “Turned Out” – an acrylic painted tight coil of a long cut out strip of canvas, completed in 2009.

She says that working with paper at STPI has led her to leapfrog her thoughts from this medium to wood to trees to birds to nature and finally to freedom. So her “Second Chances” and “Chances” personify the starting point in this transition in her thinking.

In the former artwork, the hand coiled paper no longer require the stainless steel rods to hold their whirls, all the while floated above 3D printed un-caged standing birds ready to take flight

In the latter, Jane loops a long strip of mylar – the plastic film used in photolithography – into a stupa-like shape, from which hand-cut mylar birds are taking off literally and spiritually.

When they are soaring freely, she uses a video to project their aerial journey onto coils of mylar flattened into circular discs. This liberating series of masterpieces she titles “The Birds”.

In resulting cheer, she creates “Awakening” and “Set Me Free” – both of freely winging feathered animals in a state of celebration. These paper and acrylic designs signal Jane’s venture into territories she newly charts for herself.

All her “Unfolded Dream” artworks thus spell out clearly the consequential sensations of freedom – she completely embeds multimedia players into thickly stacked STPI handmade cotton paper, turning each rectangular pile into a peep-box through which you can watch her birds soar through the air.

And when they come to rest on a branch in their chosen tree in “Playing”, they appear to vibrantly bream with such inner delight that they break into melodious chirpings, filling the dense woodlands jet and laser printed in “Just A Moment” with “Inner Songs”.

In these last three, the stacking of Maple White and hand-cut textile paper is so tight and voluminous, her fancy free birds become hard to spot: they have returned to a joyous state of being as nature intends for them. When they are still, it is the songs they sing that stay most easily discernable.

And so it is with Jane. Her art we see and know pre-STPI is no longer visible here. But we can still easily make out what comes fluidly and instinctively always to her – taking tried and tested media out of their usual box. In her current show she has thus stretched and re-represented a medium traditionally used in painting as well – the humble paper but WITHOUT the paint. Even in her usual oeuvre she has indeed broken free!

See Jane Lee in this new light before her “Freely, Freely” exhibition ends on 5 March at STPI, 41 Robertson Quay, Singapore 238236.

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