The Unruly Art of Leo Tien

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30 Nov 2016 — 19 Mar 2017

A deceptively simple painting, titled Happy New Year Family, shows members of a Chinese family staring directly out of the frame — but upon closer inspection, the portrait is really an indictment of racist attitudes. On the left side of the canvas, there is a small bleeding heart and a list of racist names: “Japs, reffos, wops and woks”; and on the right side, “Pommies, Yankees, Irish and Jews.”  The picture on the surface is tranquil and pleasant but the prejudice either experienced or witnessed was painful enough to express in the painting.  It’s New Year, a time of fresh beginnings, but the pain of racism remains.

Such is the complex nature of Leo Tien’s art: a truly ‘unruly’ painter, Tien was not concerned with technical perfection but nonetheless powerful, poetic, comic and inventive.

Born and raised in China as a Catholic before WWII, Leo Tien became a priest and religious scholar and eventually moved to Australia.  In his late forties, he would leave the priesthood but not the church.  In his new life as a Chinese Australian immigrant, he moved to Melbourne’s Dandenong, where he married, lived and worked for fifteen years until he retired.

Through the deep power of his imagination, Tien was able to meld all these distinct identities into one creative voice in his painting.  His strength as an artist lies not in technical prowess, but the powerful and unique imagery that reflects his deepest feelings about life as a Chinese Australian immigrant and his personal spiritual exploration.