Canvas to Canvas
It has been three years since Raymond Lau held an exhibition here; the
last show was in November 1997, also convened in the Substation. Titled Reality: Seen and Imagined, it featured
a selection of pictures produced over five years, i.e 1992-1997. The majority of them were representations of streets, taking
for their subject-matter partial or fragmentary views of alleyways and building facades. Windows and doors, seen at times as opened and at times as
shut, point to habitation past and present. Evidence of Habitation is crystallized in considerable detail; even as these interests are marked by heightened
intensity, they nevertheless appear as residues, as left-over traces of human activity and presence.
Considering these matters, pictures in that show can be read as imaging nostalgia; in this sense,
they embody a desire for history, a desire which is cast in sentimental terms. They can also be read as picturing memory;
approached with this interest, the pictures present remembrance as a fragile, even imperiled, resonance.
The present exhibition consists of 17 pictures, produced over the past two years. As in the 1997 show,
Raymond Lau continues with his interest in street-scenes; he also persists with methods of representation. In doing so, he
develops marked degrees of versatility in pictorial composition, thereby setting these works apart from pictures in the earlier
The recent works are different on another account; their subject is impressed with distinct socio-cultural
profiles and status. The chief interest is in mamak stalls or shops. Mamak is a Malay word
which means uncle; it is also a form of polite address directed to elders of Malay-Indian parentage. In its expanded use,
it designates India Muslims who have settled here from India, and who run provision stalls and stores selling a wide range
The mamak stall was a ubiquitous feature of Singapore urbanism; it survives in commercial-cum-residential
buildings untouched by destruction for rebuilding. Occasionally it can be seen to take hold in HDB (Housing Development Board)
building precincts. In its initial formation, the mamak stall was a tiny store attached to or recessed into
a wall of a coffee shop; the proprietor, who was invariably an India Muslim, sold a seemingly unlimited range of provisions
at low prices. The store was also a site for continuous social intercourse amongst people of diverse ages as well as from
varying racial and social groups. In these circumstances mamak assumed an avuncular function or status, acting as a focal point for shifting
social connections. Glimpses into such dynamic relationships can be gleaned today, although at greatly reduced scales.
In the picture titled Little India, an alleyway leads to the middle ground, which is highlighted by a standing figure talking into a telephone; on its
two sides are a number of stalls, each distinguished by its enclosure and merchandise. Seated and standing figures consolidate
pictures planes; these are arranged to give a sensation of moving in space and into the picture.
Pigments and brushmarks are generating a range of effects. For instance, the newspaper held by the seated figure and the shirt worn by it leaps into prominence by attention given to their material
existence and physical presence. Elsewhere, attention is shifted to other preoccupations. Sections of the floor, ceiling,
the middle ground and rolled chicks
are painted in glowing yellow; entwining brushmarkds roll sinuously across the surface. The image attains splendour and heightened
luminosity. In this regard, the majority of pictures share this feature; although a facet of history appears as threatened, it is nevertheless
given an assertive, resplendent, pictorial presence.
These are among interests, which Raymond Lau cultivates with varying degrees of consistency in
the pictures in this show. At times these interests are presented at close-range, as close-ups, and gain fresh significance.
This vantage is developed engagingly in pictures titled Mohammad and Dada; in them, proximity
leads to personalization. Proximity
is pressed towards claiming familiarity, even intimacy. So much so, the invitation to appraise these images as portraits is not only plausible but readily
accepted. In these instances, identity is given, secured and safeguarded, by a name; such a provision is as potent and enduring
as the portrayal of identity by visual resemblance.
The aim of coaxing the medium into simulating actuality is vividly embodied in Watch Out
and Daily Use. Here we experience the spectacle of things as concrete entities. In Watch Out,
Raymond Lau takes pains to convey a sense of an interior as a palpable sensation. The picture surface is weighted down with
the density, gravity of the things depicted; the figure, presented in rear view, is immersed in the overwhelming resonance of materiality and becomes part
of it. In this picture, bodies and space are assimilated, one into the other, and make-up an integrated picture field. This
picture marks the most convincing demonstration by Raymond Lau of his capacity to employ methods of representation selectively and purposefully.
The Interest shifts altogether in Cover. It is true that a partial figure is visible
at the bottom right corner; its appearance consolidates a foothold in the world of tangible, visible form, although on a minor
key. The dominant engagement is with colour ground, and brushmarks that assert spontaneity; the shift is away from representing
seen reality. Engagements with these attributes lead to the creation of an image whose appeal is in painterly and expressive
qualities. The composition is characterized by undulating rhythms, interlocking grounds of colour, realized with elegance, subtly and energy. Dreamland also marks an appreciable departure from the
weight and specificity of bodies, things and form. The picture is an image not in terms of the world's construction embodied
as form but in terms of personal/subjective experience; the experience is filtered through vision and made intelligible by
colour. It is in these two pictures that the theme of the exhibition is most nearly realized. Raymond Lau impresses these
two pictures with a painterly sophistication not seen in any others in this exposition.
Raymond Lau's practice springs from a conviction that painting continues to have validity; the conviction
enables him to construct the world in forms that disclose the self while giving the self a semblance of coherence. The past seven years have been devoted
to consolidating his ability to use some of the fundamental principles of painting and developing fertile, expanding grounds
for that use. The advancements are gradual; they can be discerned and appraised in a handful of pictures in his exhibition.
Mr. T.K. Sabapathy