Yoes Rizal at Taman Ismail Marzuki, Jakarta (2000)

Astri Wright
artdesigncafé - art | 3 June 2012
This article was previously published in the Jakarta Post, 16 April 2000 with the title "The human figure and the nude exhibited". A slightly different version of this essay appeared in the exhibition catalogue to Yoes Rizal’s "Emerging Bodies" (TIM, Jakarta, 18-27 April).

Yoes Rizal at Taman Ismail Marzuki, Jakarta

Emerging bodies, an exhibition of 22 paintings by Yoes Rizal is showing at Taman Ismail Marzuki, from April 18 to April 27. With this exhibition, the importance of the human figure as the vehicle for commentary on the human condition in all its complexity, is once again reaffirmed as central in Indonesian art.

In this way, contemporary Indonesian art shows clear links with contemporary Asian art, be if from India, China, Thailand, Vietnam or the Philippines. For reasons which are fascinating to explore, the human figure, seen in countless different angles and stylistic departures throughout Asian and indeed world art of all ages, except the brief period of Euro-American abstraction, has remained central as the dominant narrative device and subject matter of the modern period in South and Southeast Asia.

But unlike the many levels of stylization and distortion one so often sees in contemporary depictions of the human body in Indonesia, we encounter here in Yoes Rizal’s work an abstraction linked to realism rather than to decorativism and primitivism. Beyond choosing the human figure and the complex psychological and spatial relationships between several figures as his subject matter, we also encounter here the artist’s visions of the nude. This variant of figure painting has long been absent from the public display of modern or contemporary Indonesian art. Yoes Rizal’s current and second solo exhibition, then, historically links back to the masterful sketches of nude figures made by Muchtar Apin, Affandi and Widayat, small masterworks rarely exhibited due to the perceived sensitivity of the subject matter among various groups of Indonesian society.

In paintings like Fabulous, No story 4, Beauty brown and white and No story 5, Yoes Rizal contributes new dimensions to the history of the nude in Indonesian art. Unlike his predecessors, he does not appear to concentrate only on female nudes; unlike in the sketches of his elders in modern Indonesian art, the fact of nudity is not the main or only fact we note about them, because they are not merely posing, on display, nude models bearing our gaze passively. The nudity in Yoes Rizal’s best work is neither exhibitionist nor distracting: it is presented as part of being born human— the way we enter the world, the way we live it beneath the various disguises we choose, the way we relate and move and hold our bodies during the dramas life offers up and the way we exit the world as we return to earth or ash.

At the beginning of the 21st century, Indonesia has once again returned to the process of remaking itself as a democratic nation. The first Indonesian president, Sukarno, was an avid collector of art. But in the 1940s and 1950s, an appreciation for the qualities and challenges of modern art was still quite new to the struggling colony and the newborn republic. Sukarno’s taste in art left much to be desired, but it was very much a product of his time— as was the art of some of his favorite painters.

It is always the artists who most closely reproduce what the public or the collector wants, who will produce the least historically important work. While in such art, the human condition or human nature is represented only superficially, as clichés and stereotypes, the emphasis on fashionable form and surface beauty is the strongest aspect of the work, and the message or narrative is simple and quickly grasped. Such artists are often extremely popular in their own time and are thus important from the perspective of cultural history.

But from the critical historical perspective of “great art that withstands the test of time”, these artists are soon forgotten. Basuki Abdullah is an example of this. While this artist painted a wide range of romanticized subjects, his nude figures are exclusively individual women, displaying themselves fully or partially to the viewer in a range of sexually suggestive poses, and with no other intent than to arouse the viewer. While some of these works are technically well-painted, others look like the subjects are not organic, living, breathing people with real skin, but are made, rather, of hard, shiny plastic, like a doll.

Yoes Rizal and the natural body
It is hard in Indonesia today for artists who want to study the human figure. Drawing and painting nude models is seen and experienced by many as the basic training in understanding the human figure, but it goes against dominant cultural norms that prohibit nudity in the art academy classroom. Yet it removes the possibility for artists to develop a natural relationship with the nude body, particularly with that of the opposite sex. Thus, it is understandably extremely hard for male artists in Indonesia to develop beyond an attitude of sexual sensationalism surrounding the female nude. They end up, after all, painting from the imagination or from the available photos of nude women, which are largely found in pornographic calendars and videos. This situation serves everyone poorly. It maintains a huge psychological distance between men and women and keeps the relationship framed in the idiom of sexuality.

Also, it flies in the face of qualities which characterized the peoples of the pre-Islamic and precolonial “Indonesian” archipelago. Tribal peoples from Sumatra to New Guinea and the Philippines, to Melanesia and Oceania, had the most natural relationship with the human body. Shame and taboos focused for the most part on other cultural constructions. Hindu-Buddhist Java and Bali retained an aesthetic of the natural and graceful body, where clothing more often than not consisted of the bare minimum, and was overshadowed by generous amounts of the most elegant jewelry. Skin and breasts, thighs and legs, were not the “no-nos” they have been for modern Indonesian art since the 1950s. Only the smallest number of artists have persisted in painting nudes, then mostly in private, or by depicting the body so full of life force that even the colorful cloth of kain and kebaya could not conceal it, as in the work of Hendra Gunawan.

Yoes Rizal’s artistic maturity
When, despite these modern limitations, an Indonesian painter develops the ability to depict the human body nude, without the nudity being the sole focus; when a painter, through such forms, can capture in paint the sensuality and beauty of human relations of many complex kinds without falling into the trap of painting "soft pornography"; when a male painter can paint nude female figures without reducing them to psycheless, soulless bodies existing solely for men’s titillation, then art lovers (from art historians, critics and gallery owners, to collectors and the general public) can begin to take note.

In a painting like Beauty brown and white, Yoes has painted a beautiful statement that centers around the figure of a nude woman but works the viewer’s sensibilities on a number of philosophical, aesthetic and associative levels. Perhaps we associate here the contemplation that sometimes bridges the time between sleeping and waking; the idea of facing the light, new beginnings, with one’s back to the dark, and the past; the familiar feeling of preparing to enter the larger world with all its demands, from the privacy and intimacy of one’s bed. Perhaps the play of words in the title with the colors in the work, the seated woman caught in the stark contrasting light-levels, her figure looking both “white” and “brown”, become a subtle statement of postcolonial issues of race, refusing any easy divisions into simplistic categories.

One may also wonder at the composition, which to me immediately brings to mind the Indonesian flag. When I note that the title is “brown and white” and not “red and white” I immediately think: “what is red that turns brown?” And the answer is there, chillingly, in the memories of the bloodshed that has characterized so much of recent Indonesian history. And thus this painting becomes a carrier of memory and reflection, both historical and personal.

In such richly orchestrated works, Yoes carries on the abstracting techniques learned at the School of Fine Arts at the Bandung Institute of Technology, from people like his teacher Mochtar Apin and one of his favorite local artists, Srihadi Soedarsono. But Yoes, being of a younger generation, with a strong concern for human rights and social issues, takes this abstraction a step further, at the same time as he bridges the aesthetics of complete abstraction and the pictorial world of the human figure. While Srihadi S. made this same leap in his work since the early 1980s, the result as commentary on human nature remains superficial, limited to fashion-report-like sketches in oils of the Balinese dancer (the greatest of all cliches in modern Indonesian art). What we see in this exhibition is quite different. No title 4, for example, demonstrates that Yoes’ abstracting sensibility and handling of oils is not only unusually strong, it is not only intensely sculptural, nearly three-dimensional, with the human figures posed in entirely believable stances and relations; it is also intensely satisfying on the abstract level, as forms of light and dark balanced dynamically against each other. But this painting is also daring, in its tolerance for "empty" (but not "dead") space in an art world where the busy surface remains the dominant characteristic. Even in a more obviously "Indonesian" (even "Javanese") work like Lining up, Yoes Rizal manages to avoid the sweet superficial impulse to document the colorful aspects of "identity", presenting us instead with a work that engages both our aesthetic sensibilities and our minds: why are they lining up? For what? And we want to know, and we want to stand there, too, shoulder to shoulder.

Here, then, is presented to the art public in Indonesia, the maturing vision of an artist to take note of. Yoes Rizal’s humanist and intuitive-reflective nature lends real depth to his treatment of the human figure and the way human interactions are depicted. We encounter here statements of universal power about the human condition.

And here is the promise of new generations of Indonesian artists who do not have to conform to any narrow artistic or propagandistic agenda, whether it be to pure decorativism or to the imperative that art must have clear and unambiguous political messages. Viewers to this sumptuous visual and philosophical feast can revel in the many layers of meaning and beauty, the truest form of beauty, reached in several of the works exhibited here, which embrace both truthfulness and depth.