Views and Comments by Art Critics
Extracts from book about Ping Lian, titled "I Want To Be Artist": An Autistic Savant's Voice and A Mother's Dream Transformed onto Canvas" written by Ping Lian’s mom, edited by Dr Rosa C. Martinez.
In his writings on l’Art Brut – ‘Outsider Art’ being the English-language term - Jean Dubuffet made a passionate case for those artists who remain outside of the institutional mainstreams. “Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses – where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere – are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professionals.”
This description could have been made for Ping Lian Yeak, whose elaborate paintings and drawings are produced within a bubble of concentration that many mainstream artists might envy. We know enough about autism nowadays to understand that Ping Lian’s condition is both a disability and an ability. Regardless of the difficulties he experiences with other tasks, when Ping Lian has a pencil or brush in hand he is alone with his motif, free from distractions and anxieties.
Many would-be artists have talent but lack the discipline necessary to make work of a consistently high standard. Ping Lian is a natural artist who responds to a motif with a complete lack of self-consciousness. When he paints the Sydney Opera House he is not thinking about all the other artists who have been there before him. He is not trying to compete with the Opera House pictures of well-known painters such as William Dobell or Brett Whiteley. His only concern is to capture the most vivid record of his chosen subject.
But perhaps it’s not quite so simple. Because Ping Lian’s verbal skills are limited he may be unable to discuss his ideas and motivations, but that does not mean he works in a purely mechanical fashion. In this book Sarah Lee points out the hidden faces and other figures found in many of her son’s drawings, such as a Swimming Pool picture of 2004. Although speech may not come easily to Ping Lian his works testify to a lively imagination and a vibrant inner life. In many pieces he is not simply recording, but inventing. This ability to transform the everyday into the marvellous is a sign of the true artist. Technical ability can be learned, but imagination comes from deep within.
At first acquaintance with Ping Lian’s work one is struck by its tremendous sense of detail and the wondrous, wristy line he employs. That line, so fluid and confident is Ping Lian’s trademark – his unique signature style. One can learn a lot about an artist from the way he or she draws. Each drawing entails a complex interaction between eye, mind and hand. The lines of communication may be clumsy at the beginning, but with practice it becomes a matter of pure instinct. Ping Lian has arrived at that point where drawing has become a second language through which he conveys his thoughts and feelings. His cheerfulness and openness of heart are apparent at a glance, especially in his drawings of animals.
There can be no doubt that Ping Lian owes a debt to his ‘tiger mother’, Sarah, who recognised his talent at an early age and worked so tirelessly to help him develop his artistic facility. One need not share Sarah’s faith in either God or motivational literature to realise she has found a set of techniques that have brought out the best in her son. She may prefer to give credit to the Supreme Being but it is her unconditional love, devotion and support that have turned this “poor boy” into an artist of formidable powers.
John McDonald is an art critic for the Sydney
Morning Herald & film critic for the Australian Financial Review