Yau Bee Ling last held a solo exhibition more than two years ago, which is not a long gap for a painter who makes art based on her life’s seasons. Even with her hands full homeschooling her children and teaching on the side, Yau has been able to produce a new series, named Interwoven Terrains.
The 10 works — which include several diptychs — were inspired by the natural landscape that she spent time in due to the homeschool programme, which encourages learning in the outdoors.
It was when she was mountain walking, hiking, camping and farming that Yau found herself also connecting with her inner self, and with God. “I am a Christian, but it’s not as much a religion to me as about having a higher being that is close to me,” she explains. “And I suppose being close to nature — and whenever I am driving or going about my day — I spend a lot of time praying and reflecting.”
While being surrounded by nature provided moments of introspection, her latest series is not so much about the natural landscape but about the metaphorical manifestations of the “landscapes” of her emotions and that of her conversations with God and herself. As its name suggests, Interwoven Terrains has blended and melded imagery that shows the inner world of the artist, who has traversed some truly difficult life seasons.
“I think there is a natural terrain inside every one of us, one affected by what we have encountered. In this series, I did not suppress it and instead, let it emerge,” says Yau. Hers has to do with death, she candidly reveals.
Having lost a younger sister to what she calls a sudden death a few years ago, followed by the passing of her father about nine months ago, she says the question of “where do they go” and the aftermath of their leaving — compounded by the feeling of being disappointed in those left behind — led to a period of inner conflict for her where she mourned, wondered what to let go off and what to hold on to, and putting things in perspective.
This process is captured in Yau’s most abstract-looking series yet, as the artist confesses that she sought solace beyond the physical world, with the resulting imagery being formless. “It wasn’t intentional. I am not an artist who plans the entirety of my work before I start, and I gain clarity as I go through the process. So, as I painted the images of landscapes in my mind, the physicality of the terrains, figurations — like those of the black ink outlines — became more fragile and weak,” she says, adding that the metaphorical form and spiritual idea of the landscape then took precedence.
“I borrowed from abstraction but it’s not truly an abstract style of painting. The abstraction here is in my reflections, my life.”
Yau equates it to a puzzle. By learning to accept that she only holds a piece of the puzzle rather than all of it, it taught her to embrace imperfections. “We are made in the image of our perfect creator, so we all long to be perfect in some way. But I know now that I have to put my puzzle next to someone else’s to get the full picture. Life is only beautiful that way.”
The fragments of her experiences and emotions, when reflected on the oil canvases, create a presence and energy that are perhaps what draws one to her new works. While vivid colours have always been a part of her artistic practice, they are maximised in Interwoven Terrains to convey a complicated sense of conflicting beauty, of a vibrancy that is as evocatively layered as the paints she uses.
The diptychs are the standouts of the series. As if drawing a line between her past and present, or perhaps the scarring of a tapestry marked by tragedy, they also symbolise the two spaces — physical and mental — that govern a lot of her life. “It seems that I just need two spaces. Me and God, me and myself, me and others — my mum, my husband, my daughter and son. A lot of moments happen between them,” she observes.
While landscape paintings can be healing and refreshing to look at, Yau’s series hides within it a reflection of the human heart, remaining true to her past works. Just as the splashes of paints show her newfound boldness in expressing herself freely, they are also a celebration of a new season in bloom.
She says, “I hope people can relate it to their own terrains. But for me, it’s about making peace with God and with everyone around me” — and most importantly, with herself.
This article first appeared on Oct 17, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.