Sometime in early 2001, Raymond Lau Poo Seng had a dream. In his Dream,
he was in a boat and saw a glow hovering over the Indonesia inland of Tatam, South of Singapore. Raymond had visited the Riau
islands before, painting a very few scenes from what he had observed there, including that of a wishing well. Could the light
have been a sign, wishing that Raymond would return to paint the islands of the South, the homeland of his mother? The eventual
result has been Motherland, Raymond's fifth solo painting exhibition, a collection tinged with warmth and nostalgia
for a simpler life.
In crossing over to the Riau islands for inspiration, Raymond follows in the path of many Singaporean
artists before him who have reached our to foreign lands for subject matter, such as Bali for the pioneer Nanyang artists.
But the ties for Raymond to Riau are more concrete and tangible: his mother was born in Tanjung Batu, a small island off Tanjung
Pinang, and by painting the scenery of the islands, Raymond is revisiting the soil upon which she had trodden, the sea in
which she had bathed, the neighbours she had and the houses she might have passed by. He is literally capturing his motherland
- the land of this ancestors, and trying to understand his ties to a land very different from the modern skyscrapers of Shenton
Way and the breakneck pace of life in Singapore.
The series also pays tribute to Raymond's mother. Brought up largely by his grandmother, Raymond's
relationship with his mother has at times been awkward and distant, and his painting of island Kampungs and people
is an attempt at the understanding and closeness that he desires with his mother, inspired by the childhood life she came
from. A number of paintings celebrate family life in Riau: the intimate interiors of Mother Love I and Father
Love I and their portrayal of a quite but palpable family intimacy, the close-knit and cheerful Family Ties
group and the inseparable closeness of mother and child in Mother Love II.
In Motherland, Raymond also makes tentative steps at portraiture, executing more detailed
renditions of people's features and the creases of their smiles, particularly in Family Ties, Lady in the Window
and Aunty House. Here Raymond concentrates particularly on the eyes as windows to the soul. This exploration parallels
Raymond's gradual opening up to a human interaction as he matures, his original awkwardness a consequence of his continuing
affliction with Tourette syndrome. His new found fascination with live subjects also extends to animals in this exhibition
- cats, goats and chickens. Although a lover of animals, Raymond had never managed to care for them adequately in real life,
and the current detailing in his paintings lavishes attention on them in the best way he knows how.
Painting as a visitor from a foreign land, Raymond's Motherland has definite touches of exoticism:
Raymond captures elements that are unseen or now uncommon to Singapore, such as the Kampung and Sea Houses, Jetties,
Boats, Farmyard Animals and unusual village activities, such as Attap Weaving and Carrying. Typical
of his earlier series, many paintings focus on dilapidated buildings or nostalgic scenes, and for Motherland this
now includes rustic home interiors and characteristic rural exteriors. Raymond has been impressed with how residents overcome
the tough living conditions in Riau, battling the threat of waves in rickety houses built over the sea and coping with an
irregular supply of electricity. Yet villagers are warm, trusting and friendly, leading simple, happy lives despite their
fragile surroundings, a contrast to the pampered, sheltered, yet harried citizens of Singapore. Raymond is amazed that his
mother could progress from such humble surroundings to the ultra-sophisticated, materialistic environment of Singapore, but
like several local artists, he expresses a heartfelt, if clichéd, yearning for a slower pace of life which is close to nature.
It is interesting to note a variety of painting styles in the current exhibition. The largest canvases
are given detailed studio treatments, and represent some of Raymond's most technically accomplished canvases in contrast to
his earlier, more expressionistic work. The relentless sun in the islands creates dark shadows, and the sharp contrasts are
captured admirably in several paintings. Dark, mysterious interiors are punctuated by sunlight streaming through cracks in
teh walls and floorboards, and this atmosphere can be observed in Mother Love I, Father Love I, Family Ties and Attap
Weaving. Raymond cites the Myanmese painter Min Wae Aung, who has exhibited in Singapore and visited Raymond in his studio
before, as an influence. Raymond admires Min's darkened figures painted in a strong backlight, how he captures colour, faces
and expressions, and above all, the calmness projected in Min's Paintings.
A number of small studio canvases depict people at work indoors. Outlines here were sketched out in
Chinese ink thickened with glue (which gives the line a rough, aggressive, painterly quality) and shapes filled in with acrylic
colour. These small studies in fact represent Raymond's first attempts in the Motherland series. References to Raymond's
earlier solitary window subjects are present in two paintings, Dream Home and Lady in the Window, but they
now have been enlivened by the shadow of a coconut palm frond and Riau ornamentation in the former, and a friendly face in
Raymond regards his painting of the Riau islands to be a calling, initiated by a dream. Although at
risk of losing his way in a foreign land and open to possible abuse fro his behavioral quirks, Raymond bravely ventured forward with camera and canvas to observe
and to understand. He has portrayed the land, the sea, its people and nature with warm sincerity, and has used the experience
to draw closer to his mother and her origins. The New series has also allowed him to explore a greater variety of subject
matter: Raymond has consciously striven not to be typecast with his previous signature themes following the advice of his longtime mentor, the noted
painter Tan Swie Hian, and other artist friends.
Raymond has also described his existence as an artist to be a calling. Growing up, he had never envisaged
painting full-time, although art was an obvious youthful talent. He regarded art as the province of the rich, with expensive
tools and materials, pricey even as a hobby. Circumstances however dictated that it would be his saviour in providing a livelihood,
as options in graphic design and teaching became closed to him, although he would continue to win award after award for his
paintings. His inherent interest in art has driven and sustained him, and if for some period he is unable to paint, he feels
he has lost something of himself. Colours to him, as like Lego, and he assembles his art through the use of paint, building
his compositions as if playing with toys. While acutely aware of producing quality work in the past, the act of painting is
now both meditative and therapeutic, allowing the spirit of creation to arise subconsciously from within. In completing a
painting, Raymond rises above his perceived inadequacies in other fields and feels finally like a useful member of society,
and we know then that the artist has completed yet another tour of his motherland.