The humble pencil, seemingly a basic writing tool, holds immense significance. It is a gateway to imagination, discovery and empowerment. For children, a pencil represents more than just a writing instrument; it embodies endless possibilities and holds the key to unlocking their potential.
A pencil is a powerful tool for expressing oneself creatively. With its graphite tip, thoughts, dreams and ideas are brought to life on paper. It serves as a conduit for imagination, enabling anyone to draw fantastical worlds, sketch their dreams and explore their artistic talents.
Putting thoughts to paper, artist Liew Kwai Fei’s Pencil Exercises book and exhibition, previously launched at The Back Room in Kuala Lumpur, has been updated and is now on view at ChinaHouse, Penang until July 30.
“It is a series of pencil drawings of pencils, on graph paper, that I started making over a couple months at the end of 2021. I was posting them on my Instagram as well, updating my progress each time I completed a new drawing,” Liew says.
“In 2022, The Back Room (a gallery I have regularly worked with over the past few years) and cloud projects (a young independent publishing house) arranged to have all 117 drawings compiled into a book. The book, Pencil Exercises, was released last December at KL Art Book Fair. It retails for RM150.”
The relaunch in Penang will see original drawings accompany the exhibition, along with new pencil paintings on canvas.
“The pencil is the artist’s first tool. It is the tool that most people first learn to write with,” Liew says, explaining what the writing instrument means to him. He hopes audiences can appreciate the extent to which a limited medium and subject matter can be expanded.
“The drawings and the book are exercises in imagination — for me, how much can be done with the form of the pencil and within the imposed order of graph paper. As for cloud projects and the writers, they exercised their imagination in interpreting the works.”
While most of the drawings in Pencil Exercises are simple ones with graphite and colour pencil on graph paper, Liew says that, for this work, the form of the pencil in Censorship is created by making a cut-out on the graph paper.
“For Snake Game Over, the grids of the graph paper serve as a guide for drawing but I don’t use them as is. I like to play within imposed limits. In this work, the pencil takes a geometric form that has been ‘rolled up’ to fit within the limits of the paper and the grids, like the classic Nokia phone game Snake.”
Peek-A-Boo operates against two different “ideals”. “For one, the pencils do not follow our notion of how they look or function. In this work, the graph paper has been converted into a lined paper like in a school composition book. So, there is a play on the form of a pencil and a play on the form of different types of paper,” he says.
Are the pencils in his works a glorification or the consequences of objectification?
“The works, like everything I do, are open to interpretation. I don’t make them with the intention of creating a metaphor for anything, but audiences are open to interpret them however they wish and their analyses are always interesting to me. The titles of the works were given by the cloud projects team; so, it was interesting to see what kinds of forms they saw in my drawings.”
When it comes to his growth as an artist, he says there is no linear evolution. “Sometimes, I like to do whimsical and humorous drawings or paintings. But other times, I present serious paintings influenced by my studies of art history. And other times, I do other things. I enjoy experimentation, playing around, reading, studying and discovering new things.”
In recent years, Liew started conducting art classes at the Malaysian Institute of Art and for private clients. He has also begun exhibiting more frequently. These interactions with people have inspired fresh ideas and alternative ways of thinking, so perhaps this can be considered a new change in his practice.
Compared to his previous shows, the subject matter may differ but the spirit is the same. “There is playful experimentation, exploration, jokes, wordplay and generally finding ways to subvert and have fun within established forms. These qualities tend to define my practice. It is a somewhat different direction from my past few exhibitions, which have mostly showcased my abstract paintings. Perhaps these pencils can also be considered ‘abstract’.”
He says they resemble the form of a pencil but the depicted objects do not function as they should — some of them are anthropomorphised while others are distorted.
“Lately, I have started making more pencils, but as paintings and sculptural forms. I have also been doing some abstract paintings on circular canvases and using cut-and-paste techniques. You can check out updates on my works on my Instagram. Aside from that, I will continue teaching.”
Catch 'Pencil Exercises' at ChinaHouse in George Town until July 30.
This article first appeared on June 26, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.