Sulebar Sukarman at Taman Ismail Marzuki, Jakarta (1989)

Astri Wright
artdesigncafé - art | 29 December 2011
This article was previously published in the Jakarta Post, on 24 January 1989, p. 6 with the title "Sulebar paints the spirituality of dualism".

Sulebar Sukarman at Taman Ismail Marzuki

Bright sunlight filled the gallery’s central atrium, bouncing off the white stones, while from the walls splashes of color dashed back towards the center. After closer study, this interplay between the center and the periphery seemed to echo one of the artist’s major schemes of composition: Many of the paintings were centrally focused, while peripheral diagonals, spirals or coloristic elements draw the eye away from what otherwise would have been a static image.

From Jan. 9 to 18, Sulebar Sukarman’s solo exhibition was on view at the Old Gallery at Taman Ismail Marzuki. Thirty-one oil-paintings— paper-collage and oils on canvas— and twenty-one watercolors were on view, all of them dated 1988, an impressive production which levels out to one painting a week.

Coming into the world of art as a student at the Jakarta Art Institute at the comparatively late age of 27, and now a teacher there, Sulebar Sukarman is well known in the Jakarta art world as an organizer of exhibitions and a spokesman for artists. He believes strongly in the need to develop solidarity and communication among Indonesian artists at the present time. Indeed, many of Sulebar’s generation mourn the disappearance of the dynamic artistic milieu that existed during the seventies, centered around Taman Ismail Marzuki, which now is but a bleak shadow of what it then was.

Sulebar Sukarman, thus extremely involved and verbal on all kinds of issues involving the problem of being an artist, both essentially as well as in Indonesia specifically, is equally fluent when speaking or writing about his own art. Hence, this exhibition was accompanied by a catalog, in which was printed three essays or art statements by Sulebar, spanning his thinking over the last seven years. This is the kind of communication that is sorely needed between artists and the public, as well as between artists and critics, and the exhibition catalog is [a] good medium for it. It does need to be stressed, however, that if the artist is going to go to the trouble of translating the catalog into English, the translation has to be comprehensible, if not good.

In the development of art history as a discipline in the West, it took a comparatively long time before the writings of the artists themselves were included into the histories, but by now these are considered at least one among the important sources throwing light upon a work of art. Artists’ writings range from the philosophical to the technical, from the personal to the political, to occasional verbal analogues to their paintings. Sulebar Sukarman tends towards the poetic-philosophic: “Life itself is like an empty canvas which we gradually paint, heart-beat by heart-beat and breath by breath with the totality of all our life’s experiences.”

When looking at Sulebar Sukarman’s solo exhibition, where bright, at times almost raw and clashing colors spring off the wall, and where teemingly compositions which leave us little space to breathe, alternate with calmer, through always dynamic ones, we come to realize that here is a painter who is immersed in a process which is itself the goal. This impression is supported by Sulebar’s own words in the catalog: “My painting is like the work of a farmer. I believe that every person has the ability to feel or act like a farmer who loves his land. He works hard to prepare it for the planting of good seeds and then takes care of it so it grows well and plentifully.”

In the use of this metaphor, we see Sulebar Sukarman using his wider life-experiences and applying them to his art. He has a degree from the Faculty of Agricultural Technology at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta and had run his own pig farm near Jakarta for three years before he decided to study art. He laughingly admits that it was the environment that influenced him: while studying in Yogya, he lived with art students and participated in their discussions, often helping them to translate from foreign art books. Then, when he moved to Jakarta, he got so involved with the art milieu at Taman Ismail Marzuki that once he forgot to return to the pig farm for a whole month.

Sulebar Sukarman lives in perhaps closer dialogue with another artist than most. He is married to the extremely talented abstract painter, Nunung S., who exhibited with Nuansa Indonesia last November and who has also recently taken up working with torn, plain paper, assembled as the textured surface on which to paint.

When asked about the problem of being married to another artist, Sulebar Sukarman answered: “Of course it is inevitable that there will be mutual influences. My wife not only completes me physically but also mentally and spiritually. We share everything. When we are in the process of working, we are always consulting each other’s opinions— but even so, because we are nonetheless separate people and quite different, the end results are different.”

Both parts of Sulebar Sukarman’s statement appear true. Where Nunung’s paintings are bolder, with simpler compositions and stronger lines of movement, achieving a kind of monumentality, Sulebar’s paintings are more intimate and filled with similar formal elements repeated across the space of the canvas. Yet echoes of Nunung’s frequent use of empty space and more elegant brushstrokes can be felt in Sulebar’s work at times, as in the painting called Spirit from the tree of life.

This painting is coloristically more balanced, more low-key, than most of the others. The composition is also simpler, letting the elements of torn paper stand more strongly against a near-black ground of emptiness.

In Nunung’s work there is more of a visual hierarchy, a stratification of elements, some dominating over others, while Sulebar Sukarman’s paintings on the whole are more democratically composed, elements more equal across the surface. These purely objective differences aside, Nunung’s paintings [exude] a confidence which seems lacking in Sulebar’s work, and one feels this is not only because her paintings speak louder. In his work one feels the process of the struggle between the controlling brain, the spontaneous heart and the skilled hand more clearly. We feel that Sulebar is trying to relinquish the dominance of the rational mind and seeking to attain greater spontaneity. At times he relinquishes too much control in the process, the synthesis between the three main factors becoming lop-sided in another direction, and the paintings consequently weaker than they need to be.

Sulebar Sukarman’s technical facility was a problem for him when he started studying painting in 1970.

Maybe because of my technical background it was easy for me to sketch and draw correctly, with realistic detail and proportion. It was easy for me just to copy", said Sulebar Sukarman. "This didn’t mean I could really draw— it was all controlled from the brain. So I brought my sketches to Oesman Effendi, who corrected them and then I reproduced them exactly the way he said. Then I brought them to Nashar, and reproduced them according to what he said, and so on. Finally I brought them all to Affandi and he said "But where are you in all this?" I said, "You mean I have to be here as well?" Sulebar recounted, laughing.

Sulebar Sukarman: Art as spirituality
It was during his stay in Europe, when studying and traveling on a Dutch government grant from 1972-74, that Sulebar Sukarman discovered who he was. In a strange and lonely environment, he sat in the ethnographic museum in Rotterdam and discovered how the object from Java spoke to something in him which he had not yet recognized. He became aware of himself as Javanese. Solitary and meditating on works of art in museums until he assimilated them completely into himself— first Van Gogh, then Rembrandt, later Mondrian and Rothko— art as spirituality entered into Sulebar’s life. The titles of his present paintings makes his spiritual approach evident.

"Merging, becoming one with" is a central concept in many of these paintings; merging with movement, with silence, with serenity. Another key concept is "nature", yet another is "growth". Thus it becomes clear that the spiritual experiences for Sulebar Sukarman is not a passive one. It includes movement and action as well as silence and peace, it includes body as well as mind. The body is after all the abode and the tool of the mind, or heart-mind, to be more complete: without the body there would be no proof of the heart-mind at work— there would, in Sulebar’s case, be no painting.

Also illustrating this dynamic, Taoist-like view, is Sulebar Sukarman’s color, which is not soft and spiritual in a romantic-sentimental sense— it is vibrant and strong, at times approaching disharmony; a visual analogy of the struggle inherent in growth? His spirituality is not an escapist nature-romanticism: He finds nature also in connection with Jakarta, as in the almost jazzy Nature of Jakarta 1.

Sulebar Sukarman sums his approach up thus: "The reality is that life itself consists of many different colors. I cannot look at or enjoy life only from one angle. The only good and appropriate way is to enter into the nature of life itself, to work hard and be always creative, in every way I can."

In his light and airy watercolors, where horizontal lines play against verticals in brilliant colors against the white, and in the pure oil paintings Growth and motion, Rhythms in color and The motion of growth in space, one feels Sulebar Sukarman indeed moving close to life. The experiments with paper still, on the whole, await resolution in the work to come.