Little China girl



Little China girl
By PATRICK McDONALD
11feb06
GROWING up in suburban Adelaide, Poh Ling Yeow "always wanted to be the
blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl".

"I just wasn't," the artist laughs, her distinctly Asian features virtually
disappearing behind one of her trademark ear-to-ear grins.

"As much as I loved being in Australia, obviously I was different when I
first came here. You want to eat a Vegemite sandwich, not fried rice, for
lunch."

Older and wiser now at 32, Yeow has reclaimed elements of the Chinese
heritage she was so keen to deny as a child, and poured it into the works
now on display at the Hill Smith Gallery.

Working as an artist full-time since 2002, Yeow held her first solo
exhibition that same year, at Hill Smith. Her latest works, variations on
the character she calls The Girl are finely detailed paintings, where the
bold lines of earlier pieces owed much to her education as a graphic artist
and illustrator.









Born into a fifth-generation Chinese family in Kuala Lumpur, where the
language spoken at home was Cantonese, Yeow says she assimilated better in
Australia than in Malaysia.

The family moved to Adelaide when she was nine, "primarily so my brother
and I could have a good education".

"I really felt like when I came to Australia my life made sense ? even
though I was quite young," she says.

As was common practice, Yeow adopted a Western first name until she was
about 25.

The change back to Poh Ling is part of the same process evident in her art,
embracing her cultural heritage while reassessing it in a contemporary,
Western context.

She talks about The Girl in the third person, although the character's
facial features and experiences are clearly Yeow's own.

"I guess she was developed as a cathartic act, in terms of embracing
everything that I did hate about myself physically: the broad nose, the
Asian eyes, the broad face," she says. "So I've exaggerated everything on
her.

"It's a little bit of a reclaiming and celebration of all that. As you get
older ... I love everything that is different about myself now."

She works from a tiny, but immaculately tidy studio space at her Norwood
unit.

"I just love being able to roll out of bed and paint," she says.

One of the driving themes behind her present body of work is Yeow's recent
split with her partner of 10 years.

'It's quite a big crossroads in my life," she says, although work titles
like Was That the Last Goodbye? and You Haven't Left and I Miss You Already
relate more to her re-emergence as a single person than her breakup.

"My work is about taking traditional iconography and reinterpreting it and
using it with my own agenda," she says.

The goldfish, which features in many of these works, is a symbol of
prosperity and good luck in Chinese culture.

"I take it out of water quite a lot," Yeow says. "A fish-out-of-water is
the artist's experience ... there's also a little bit about swimming
upstream.

"I like the absurdism of her (The Girl) holding the fish. There's a
defiance to it: Yes, it is my fish, it is alive and it is out of water."

Her Mermaid series, where The Girl's clothes are fashioned from the
goldfish's scales and fins, is about losing part of your identity and
taking on that of your partner's. "Sometimes you give too much and realise
you've lost a lot of yourself, but it can be a very beautiful thing as
well," she says.

Yeow's background is as colourful as her paintings. Her grandfather was an
arms dealer, although her parents had more conventional sales and
secretarial jobs.

She went from a Buddhist upbringing in Malaysia to a Presbyterian education
at Seymour College, before her family became Mormons ? "The Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter-Day Saints," she quickly corrects ? although she has since
left the religion.

Freelance work as a makeup artist led to her preparing models for Adelaide
artist David Bromley, sharpening her understanding of the art market.

The heavily textured backgrounds of her earlier works ? some also on
display at Hill Smith ? were based on impasto techniques.

Her latest works show a smoother, more refined and highly detailed finish:
"Maybe it's what I always wanted to do but it just felt too pretty for me
and I was scared ... anything that's 'decorative' is like a four-letter
word in the art world. I just didn't let that inhibit me this time."


Poh Ling Yeow is exhibiting at Hill Smith Gallery until February 22.


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