Diyanto at Museum of Modern Art, Pessau, Germany (2001)

Astri Wright
artdesigncafé - art | 23 January 2012
This article was previously published in the Jakarta Post on 2 September 2001 with the title "Diyanto: The body, the real and the absurd".

Diyanto at Museum of Modern Art, Pessau

Modern Indonesian art is making inroads in new places. The Cafe Museum exhibition, in the Museum of Modern Art in the small southern German town of Passau, includes works by Indonesian painter Diyanto, who is also one of 14 artists taking part in the exhibition Not I. Am I? currently being held at the Nadi Gallery in Jakarta.

Few things are more stimulating than the encounter of unexpected juxtapositions and unlikely but happy embraces. This was one such instance. Walking into the Cafe Museum exhibition in Passau and meeting the visions, shapes and colors of this Indonesian artist was a thrill.

It was the thrill of encountering yet another view of a shifting paradigm— a fresh view of the beached whale of western modernism with its penchant for thinking of modern art as a purely western product.

It was also the thrill of encountering an individual artist’s offering to the world of a slice of his soul, viewed through a kaleidoscope of unconscious and conscious imprints and reactions, aesthetic choices and marks.

Diyanto, who was born in West Java in 1962, has a standard background for anyone desiring a career as an artist over the last few decades in Indonesia. After first studying at the Bandung Teacher’s College, Diyanto studied at the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB)’s School of Art and Design, graduating in 1990. Since 1995, after several years as an assistant lecturer at the School of Art and Design, ITB, Diyanto has been a lecturer at the Academy of Art in Bandung.

The artist’s clear, contrasting and layered colors, representative and abstracted forms speak of his acute concern with the human figure. He is fascinated with how the body is impacted upon by firsthand experience. And while he is interested in many kinds of experiences, he is particularly drawn to experiences around pained and strained personal and social relations.

Diyanto is not a fantasy painter or a seeker of ideal beauty. But his vision of the “real” is not propagandist or overtly political. The moment-to-moment selections of human drama he chooses to paint, while sometimes presented within formalist framing devices, as if seen through prisms or linear grids, are also often inscribed with sentences or words that sway the interpretation of the work in specific directions. At the same time as a work conjures up the fear of sudden social intimidation or political violence, the painted motifs appear to have been steeped in a marinade of the absurd.

Diyanto’s works attest to a sensibility with both breadth and a particular slant, and in this way they choreograph or direct the viewers’ responses in specific directions. The absurdity of living in horror, of being victim to creeping suspicions, the constant questioning of perception— is it intuitively accurate? Is it absurd? Paranoid or paranormal?

Two older works exhibited in Passau, Victim 1 and Victim 2 (1987) contrast greatly with the rest of the exhibited works, all painted in the last half of the 1990s. In the earlier paintings, the color scheme ranges over tones of screaming red, orange and dark maroon. The later works show, on the whole, a darker palette with more subtle color contrasts.

Also, the narrative structure of the early and later paintings differ greatly. The Victim paintings show the moments after a violent event and are single-focused statements, both in image and title. The word “victim” speaks of injustice, the colors and forms scream of blood, the shape of the grieving, bent figures scream out about the grief that weaves ties between the dead and the living.

At the same time, the way the limbs and muscles are painted, we see the artist’s interest in anatomy and his indebtedness to European master paintings and sketches. The nude reclining figures, powerful as they are at first glance, soon reveal themselves to be too heavily weighted in the direction of traditional academic figure studies, and in the 1990s, as he is finding his own footing as an artist, Diyanto departs from this style.

Among Diyanto’s later paintings, Growing up between an iron and a chair (1995) is among the more absurd and humorous. It has the rare quality among this artist’s work of hinting at autobiography. While this reference may appear as a departure point of some solidity, the rest of the work is uncannily hard to read. If one focuses on the chair and the iron as providing the bottom line of the painting, the main human figures appear upside down; if one chooses the figures to show the canvas’s right side up, then the chair and iron (a heavy instrument that could be deadly if dropped) are upside down.

Not only is gravity canceled out in this painting, as opposed to the very realistic falling and spreading of limbs in the Victim paintings, but the human figure has become ghost-like, haunting unreal spaces filled with both shadow and color. The only order is provided by black and dark vertical lines that sometimes block and sometimes back up the figures— one of Diyanto’s grid-like devices that in some works conjure up the thought or memory, if not the actual presence, of jail bars.

In his working concept statement, Diyanto sets the tone for a reading of his works as both conceptual and specifically grounded in pragmatic reality. “I still believe in initial ideas. But inevitably, I am also involved in external experiences.”

Diyanto is not a narrowly focussed artist, not obsessed with a single formalist or conceptual issue, a method by which some Indonesian artists have staked their claim to fame.

The author is an associate professor at the University of Victoria in Canada and a long-standing researcher of modern and contemporary Indonesian art.