"UNNAMED" by Bayu Utomo Radjikin
on 19 June 2010, 8pm
at HOM, Ampang
The exhibition runs from 19 June - 10 July 2010
The Theatre of Painting
By Eva McGovern
As a recognised figurative painter in Malaysia, Bayu Utomo Radjikin, reveals his ongoing passions for medium and subject in his latest solo exhibition, Unnamed at House of Matahati. Through a signature style of epic realism and the Malay male protagonist Bayu continues to showcase his own carefully painted sense of dramatic physical theatre. Practising as an artist for nearly 20 years his career has focused on a diverse range of subject matter from public and personal identity through to social commentary and international political tensions. Nevertheless, such diversity has been consistently mediated through meticulously executed, highly emotive human subjects. Unnamed presents Bayu’s recent work in painting and charcoal. The exhibition focuses once more on the artist and his friend in elaborate poses that explore the spectacle of male identity as well as the artist’s own personal journey of self. It is this mastery of figurative composition and draughtsmanship that set the stage for a necessary consideration of how the technical aspect of his practice facilitates this particular style of painted mythology, heroism and individual questioning.
The theatre is a container of a physical space where universal narratives are re-created and staged. It is a site occupied by an audience, actors and a set. When this is reduced to its most basic elements with only one or two figures and minimalistic backdrop, viewers become aware of the heightened power of space/stage, of the absence of physical distraction and how the human body both punctuates and is rendered insignificant by the void of the ‘black box’ as it is often referred to. Space therefore becomes a meditative element for the consideration of the physical and psychological aspects of human existence. Such understandings clearly inform Bayu’s approach. His use of space often incorporates vast depths of dark paint or empty canvas and is a crucial component to the psychological draw of his work. Previously, backgrounds dwarfed his figures, wrapping them in a textured, inky or blank mass. However, as his work has progressed figures were brought closer and closer to the foreground of the frame. Monumentalised bodies were then fragmented into powerful torsos with brooding faces conveying both intimacy and distance.
This strategy is apparent in the works presented in Unnamed. Audiences are allowed to see the artist’s subjects more closely but at the same time their thoughts remain a mystery. Dramatic spaces are now magnified sections in between hands, arms, torsos and tilting heads. Rather than all encompassing depths pulling figures into the recesses of the background, their closeness to the frame, physicality and intense gaze penetrates out of the canvas and into real space itself. As a visual device therefore, instead of dominating the figure space now takes on an equal partnership creating complex compositional negative and positive shapes that impact the viewer’s connection with subject.
The artist also uses texture to link the figure and space producing a rhythmic oscillation of the eye seen most clearly in his paintings sebelas, duabelas, tigabelas and empatbelas. The viewer’s gaze is drawn into space through perspective and then retreats back to the surface to consider the painterly dripping that saturates the work. This reference to painting itself is a constant reminder of the artist’s awareness and dedication to his chosen medium. In duabelas the torso of the standing male subject is covered in a gridded formation of drips from where the artist has placed the canvas in different directions on the floor to achieve a sense of controlled and unpredictable movement. The figure, with one eye glaring at the audience, clasps his wrists as he emerges and disappears from a murky background. And yet this gridded mesh of streaming paint prevents any possible escape. The subject is physically contained in this symbolic site, similar to the dramatically lit settings of European Old Master paintings that dealt with universal existential and spiritual questioning.
Whether in front or three quarters profile Bayu bathes and shadows his male faces in light and darkness creating haunting tableaus of personal meditation. The large charcoal on canvas works in the exhibition with their dramatic chiaroscuro and areas of purposefully exposed canvas demonstrate his deft manipulation of light and modelling for emotional effect. The artist’s shading reveals folds of fabric as well as the shadowy contours of flesh. These create soft forms that are then intentionally interrupted by finely drawn lines of loose hair or sharply modelled profiles. Further devices such as cryptically rendered facial and hand gestures as seen in lima and sembilan partially obscure and hide intense facial expressions and serve to heighten the unspoken warnings and conversations that seem to be taking place. When juxtaposed with a starkly blank canvas or a smoky spectre of lingering charcoal these powerful visual tactics serve to emphasise the potentials of grand narratives such as good against evil, light against dark.
As a visual component hands have become an increasingly important form of communication for the artist. Human hands have their own expressive language, and can convey a variety of emotions as well as inflict physical harm and nurture. Subtle and sharp movements can therefore create powerful messages that suggest wisdom, creativity, protection, healing, sadness, anger and much more. It seems appropriate therefore, that such complex conduits of information are also one of the most technically challenging elements of the body to master when learning to draw. Having clearly mastered this skill Bayu relentlessly pushes his talents even further by selecting ambitious hand formations to realistically recreate onto canvas. Although static, the positions he has chosen create a sense of movement as the eye travels along the lines of fingers and palms as well as the inferred physical movement of the subject. Whether clenched or hung in front of the face as in empat and lapan hands also create a sense of implied ritual rooted in the Malay context of dance, martial arts and spirituality that could reference acts of reverence, defiance, meditation or magic. Enam displays hands in motion with additional lines of another hand and figure left unfinished in the left hand section of the drawing. An ambiguous diagonal line of red thread connects the hand of the charcoal figure to this exposed section of canvas creating a sense of abstract movement. Therefore various inversions appear to be taking place: of space, light and shadow, visibility and invisibility that address the physical processes of image making. However, it is in sepuluh that the climactic statement of Bayu’s fascination with composition and execution of the figure takes place. Here the protagonist stands in front of the audience with four arms and hands gesturing in front of his face. As if two frames of movement have been captured this complicated composition exposes the artist’s need to challenge himself in the rendering of multiple arms and hands in a tightly framed arrangement. Although the intense stare of the figures eye’s are clearly distinguishable in the shadowy middle ground, his hands seem to present the complexity of emotion and inner conflict. This multiple layering of movement and masculine physicality expresses the psychological qualities of Bayu’s brooding male protagonists, whose symbolic heroism hint at the artist’s own sense of personal identity.
Although many of his audiences will recognise the artist and his friend Masnoor from Matahati in his images, Bayu creates a complex sense of portraiture that incorporates more symbolic meaning and personal questioning. During the beginning phases of creating his images the two men are photographed in the studio, dressed in traditionally inspired tengkolok whilst improvising gestures and positions. These are intuitive body movements based on personal memories of Malay and Bayu’s own Javanese culture and not accurately researched reconstructions. When a photograph has been selected and translated onto the canvas, these seemingly random poses then take on more monumental meaning through Bayu’s poignant style of Figurative Realism. As such there is a certain process of romanticisation that is taking place around the noble Malay warrior.
Cultures are inevitably captivated by the folklore of great men and their epic lives filled with challenge and triumph. These stories of bravery and morality allow audiences to connect with core values whilst concurrently propagating mythical stereotypes. Perhaps this is where the artist’s own experience in theatre emerges once more, as he presents grand imaginings similar to scenes in stage and screen of traditional Malay masculine characters. Sensitively rendered facial expressions of strength and honour with an underlying emotional struggles seen in works such as satu and dua, evoke similarities to the legendary heroes of Hang Tuah or Hang Jebat still so popular in society today. This personal response to the spectacle of masculinity in written, oral and visual culture highlights the masquerade of identity, itself in constant flux and almost impossible to define.
And yet it is impossible to escape that the majority of the images depict the artist himself. As such individual questions and dilemma’s inevitably emerge through the process of contemplating one’s own physicality and facial features. The isolation of the artist studio, itself a chamber for personal meditation, is conducive and almost encouraging of such a psychological effort. Therefore it is important to consider what such a deeply personal inclusion – which is a common thread in his work – means in relation to his practice. During the process of making the images for Unnamed the artist has been questioning his own sense of ethnic identity. Bayu’s recent repertoire has been clearly linked to the Malay warrior and Malay culture, however such associations have increasingly compelled him to explore and interrogate his own Javanese heritage. Born in Sabah and living and working in Kuala Lumpur, Bayu’s parents are Javanese. Although dislocated by place from his family heritage, a sense of ‘genetic memory’ has prompted him to explore his relationship to Java. What does being Javanese mean? Is it something defined by blood, by race, by gender, by culture or a deep connection to place and people? Such questions take a life time to answer and Unnamed does not attempt to present any answers but rather a beginning of a more intense personal exploration. And this sense of questioning is seen in the way the faces of his subjects are often obscured by hands and shadow. Rather than clearly ‘seeing’ his personal identity, he attempts to explore through this through his practice or in more romantic terms: through the hands of the artist. This could also potentially allude to the artist’s belief in the third eye, or connection to spiritual images from higher states of being which have psychological significance. Certainly these figures take on shamanistic qualities and the spaces they inhabit could be otherworldly planes in a search for personal truths.
Unnamed presents symbolic and personal expressions of the male body through a mature sense of Figurative Realism, a style that praises strong composition and accurate form along with the intangible, emotional qualities of human life. The technical mastery of replication along with the desire to transform the real to profoundly ‘speak’ without words has driven many artists to the point of obsession. Bayu’s own passionate use of the body and hands in his work mimics the methods of communication as a painter who uses his hands and mind to create new versions of reality and an intense psychological exploration of self. These needs to express form through paint and the compelling mythologies that artists produce can be visually hypnotic and seductively dramatic. The aura that surrounds Bayu’s subjects and his position as the artist ‘creator’ have all led to the subsequent popularity and respect for his practice that continues to be one of the driving forces of technically advanced Figurative Realism in Malaysia today.
Bayu’s most recent participation in a group exhibition is called Al Kesah : Once upon a time in Malaysia at Whitebox Maps, Spice at Pace Gallery, A Meter Perspective at HOM, ‘Stirring Odissi’ at Galeri Petronas, ‘Shifting Boundaries’ at Rimbun Dahan and last year’s ‘50 Ways to Live in Malaysia’ in 2009. He has also exhibited his works abroad in London, Jakarta, Pakistan and Singapore. Being an active member of the Matahati, Bayu has joined more than 20 exhibitions with the group, one of their international efforts being MATAHATI Ke MATADUNIA - Malaysian Contemporary Art to The World which happened at Galeri Chandan, Kuala Lumpur and Culver City, California. Among his most recent participation with MATAHATI were the ArTriangle at Soka Gakkai Malaysia and Matahati: For Your Pleasure at Galeri Petronas, both held in 2008, and Anting+Anting Matahati at Art Salon in 2005.
The 41-year-old artist, whose works are collected by many prominent institutions such as National Art Gallery Kuala Lumpur, National Art Museum Singapore, Japan Foundation Kuala Lumpur, Ibrahim Hussein Foundation, New Straits Times and et cetera began his career in the arts in 1988 at the ‘Hiroshima Never Again’ exhibition at the Kuala Lumpur City Hall.