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Zola Zolu Gallery
Contemplating Reality
Asian Art News , Mar-Apr 2010




The versatile, forceful, and multilayered pictorial narrative of contemporary Indonesian art of the past two decades has been made possible by myriad individual and collective voices. The art of the Solo-based painter Muhammad Arief Kurniawan is far removed from the cocophony  of modern life and adds a still, contemplative note to the art scene.
By Ian Findlay

The many social and political forces that have driven Indonesian art since Indonesia declared its independence from the Dutch in 1945 have inspired myriad artists to make artworks of freedom from Dutch colonialism saw the development of art that was nationalistic and political in tone. Such art rejected the ‘exotic’ images that had been manufactured by artists for Dutch colonialists’ consumption, as 19th-century Chinese artists in Guandong made ‘trade’ paintings for foreigners who sought an idealized view of china. Neither manufactured romantic and exotic images of Indonesia nor purely nationalistic art could survive in a country that sought to make over its image and develop an exiting and meaningful art scene. Such narrow subject matter and themes could not by themselves establish a single strong foundation for art in a country as ethnically and culturally diverse as Indonesia. The miscellaneous combination of the sheer wealth of local art traditions, political and social movements, and Chinese and Western artistic influences has underpinned a constantly evolving artistic landscape that is quite remarkable in Asia, and certainly one of the most stimulating anywhere in the world. The artistic sensibilities and art discourses that have emanated from the art organizations and art schools from such major creative centers as Jakarta, Jogyakarta, Bandung, and Bali have reinforced  the strength and richness  of contemporary Indonesian art that perhaps would have been difficult for the founding fathers of modern Indonesian art to have ever imagined during their struggles.

The subject matter and themes of contemporary Indonesian  art have been explored through every imaginable ism and ist in modern art history so that no single voice has dominated. Among the vast range of artistic sensibilities within Indonesian art circles realism, impressionism romanticism, and symbolism, for example, have jostled for position alongside mysticism, abstraction, hyperrealism, neo-expressionism, and the purely decorative. These have embraced and examined every conceivable theme and subject, which has added immeasurably to the vitality of Indonesian art. Young artistic voices such as those of Heni Dono, Entang Wiharso, Dede Eri Supria, Chusin Setyadiukara, Yinizar, Eddie Hara, I Nyoman Masriadi, and Muhammad Arief Kurniawan speak to the extraordinary potency of contemporary Indonesian art’s complex and intriguing narrative, covering everything from personal reflection to daily life to forceful interpretations of late-20th-century Indonesian society’s evolution to democracy and its attendant problems.

The art of Muhammad Arief Kurniawan, which includes rustic scenes of ducks and geese, massed views of Japanese koi swimming, market scenes, and hyper-realistic faces of modern-day film star icons, is curiously ethereal in the face of much of the painting of young Indonesian artists who make tough, uncompromising works that are changed dramatically since the mid-1990s. Born in 1976 in Magelang, Java, 1976, Muhammad Arief Kurniawan trained as a psychologist and worked in theater before he began to take art seriously, first as a drawer and then as a painter in 1996. Although essentially a selftaught artist, Arief Kurniawan studied first with Bp. Agus Salim Suyuti and then in 1998, with the painters D. Mantri, Bp. Hasyim Katamsi. In 1999, he began to exhibit his artworks in Solo. But it wasn’t until 2000, however, that he decided to devote himself exclusively to painting, initially under the guidance of the painter, K.R.T. Sulistyo Hadinagoro, who helped him to become a professional artist. The pas decade has been a particularly fruitful one for the artist.

Arief Kurniawan’s training as a psychologist has been vitally important to his success as an artist. His knowledge and interpretative skills learned as a psychologist have helped him to become an astute observer of daily life and people, taking in the varied nuances of nature, animals, and the quirkiness of people’s psychology, bringing them to reality with and attention to detail that breathes life and individual identity into his most contemplative artworks, be they pastoral or figurative or portraits.

An excellent early example of his early figuration is Geilat Balet (2010). This is a formal, moody rendering of a young female ballet dancer on the floor, her right leg straight in front of her; her left leg tucked under her, and her upper body bent forward with her elegant arms outstretched, undulating gently towards her slippered foot in a moment of graceful, even sensual, movement. Geilat Balet appears, at first glance, a rather simple study of a moment that captures the exquisite swan-like figure of the classical ballet dancer. This work speaks to the past, to a romantic, somewhat sentimental world when realism and naturalism held sway. But what brings his scene alive is Arief Kurniawan’s attention to detail and the nuances he achieves in the richness of the red of the dancer’s clothes, the careful form of the dancer’s slipper, the light bronze skin tones, and the brown background, the soft line of the figure’s arms and legs, and the muted lighting of the space that emphasizes the figure’s refined posture.

Such details and nuances are also found in other works such as Catatan Dinamika Bangsa (2004), Tarian Rejan (2005), and Gemulai (2007). Catatan Dinamika Bangsa is a picture of studied concentration of a women sewing an Indonesian flag. The scene has quiet energy and a timeless quality to it, much like those of the group of dancers in Tarian Rejan and the two classical Indonesian dancers in Gemulai. Arief Kuniawan’s palette in such work is a rich one moving from bluish white to black in Tarian Rejan and brown, red, and gold in Gemulai. The simplicity of the dress in Tarian Rejan is in sharp contrast to the formal classical style of dress in Gemulai. Each style of dress adds not only to the character of the figures but also to the movement, from robust and energetic to formal, stylized, and traditional, within the picture plane. The details in these works pull the viewer into the simple, quiet scenes immediately. Here Arief Kurniawan’s gentle prescribed figuration is a far from Entang Wiharso’s characters’ dramatic, tormented revelations or the hyperbolic muscularity of the art of I Nyoman Masriadi as is possible.

The quiet spirit that informs Arief Kurniawan’s figuration is also very much part of the other series that the past decade. The bucolic scenes in which he features ducks and geese and Japanese koi bubble with and energy, color, and innocence that is engaging, much in the same way of Lee Man Fong’s impressionistic views of  goldfish and carp but with a studied realism that borders on the hyprer-real. But where Lee often used two ducks and a cock and hen in his paintings, Arief Kurniawan shows his fish and fowl mostly in groups as in kedamaian (2003). Certainly one of his most accomplished works is Rayuan Betina (2003), which features only two ducks, one of which is raising itself out of the water, its wings spread and a posture that suggests flirtation with its companion. These scenes of fowl in their watery habitat, flapping their wings, preening themselves, posturing, feeding, or simply resting by the riverbank or on still water, is curiously contemplative, and gives us pause to think of a world that city dwellers rarely see today and some might think as odd in the bustle of their busy lives. Yet, strangely in Indonesia, for all its large urban centers such a world is relatively close by.

Arief Kurniawan’s pastoral world is meant to provoke thoughts of an innocent worlds, a seemingly unchanging one in which peace and harmony reign. To some extent this is true, too, for his series of paintings on Japanese koi, a subject that he has imagined well. The artist realized these fish in their watery world in a blaze of colors that moves from red to gold to black white. The fat bodies of these koi are spirited, swimming and turning, open mouthed and gulping air, alive with the natural energy of life. Recent works such as Harmony and Riak-Riak Kehidupani (both 2007) represent well Arief Kurniawan’s fishy world in ponds surrounded by a variety of rocks and foliage, which are skillfully rendered in a more muted palette. The artist’s koi paintings also engender thoughts of peace and harmony in groups. There is never any feeling of solitariness in these works.

Any sense of the solitary is fully realized in Arief Kurniawan’s market scenes where individuals and groups move about their business in a quiet manner that suggests the timeless routine of country life. Here there is a very different painterly and emotional tone in Arief Kurniawan’s oil-on-canvas narratives, both in the groups and the individual country figures, from that found in Catatan Dinamika Bangsa, Tarian Rejan, and Gemulai. Arief Kurniawan renders his subjects in a painstakingly realistic manner that is most often seen in Southeast Asia watercolors.

The quality of Arief Kurniawan’s scenes reminds one of the Bali works of the late 1980s and early 1990s by the Bandung-born painter Chusin Setyadiukara. Like Setyadiukara, Arief Kurniawan has adopted a painstaking realistic style that borders in the photographic depictions of scenes, visited and imagined. Dalam Harapan (2004) and Merangkai…Merangkum (2005) exemplify this photographic quality as his subjects are captured unawares. Here the people are revealed not only through Arief Kurniawan’s detailed rendering of their colorful dress, the folds of wrinkled and tanned skin, and their facial expressions and varied postures, sitting and walking. Through sketches and photographs Arief Kurniawan has built up a world that is curiously still yet filled with the underlying tension of waiting, working silently and steadily, and simply at rest. As a constructed reality one must question it as a reality astutely imagined and wonder what is Arief Kurniawan trying to achieve in these works and what he is asking of the viewer. Perhaps it is, as in all of his work, that the viewer look afresh at the world, to try to look beyond the surface on which life is constructed and deconstructed as one moves through it.

In all his figurative works Arief Kurniawan draws us in with his attention to detail, lighting, and color that stimulates the viewer’s interest immediately. The accessibility of his figuration does not mean that it is necessarily easy to understand; on the contrary, the figures are subtly complex, as many seemingly simple things turn out to be. The immediacy of his art and its quality, is to Arief Kurniawan’s and the viewer’s attention but also hold it, and so encourage the viewer to contemplate his artistic statements and his multilayered vision of the world.

These are many people in contemporary art who believe that accessibility of subject matter or theme in artworks is passé. Serving no real purpose and so cannot be taken seriously in a contemporary context. At the same time, such people feel that representations of beauty are also passé. Arief Kurniawan disagrees with such views. Accessibility and beauty are essential to his art; they are integral to his entire vision of life and its meaning, whether it embraces dancers, fowl, or real and imagined market scenes. His most recent series of faces of celebrities, which includes Salma Hayek (Eidetic Imagery, see cover), Brad Pit (Good Shape Figure), Angelina Jolie (Figure), and Nicole Kidman (Exitetentialism), to name but four, reinforce his beliefs.

Arief Kurniawan’s photorealistic faces stare out at us as if emerging from water. They are clear faces, emphatic in their sensuality. They are in effect exacting studies that, as Warhol’s printed and photographed faces did for earlier generations of viewer, provide an intimate association with the famous through art. The artist is able to reveal something of his celebrities through his psychological training, which he says has helped him to “look very closely and examine their characters in a carefully subjective manner. I see people, color, concepts, and composition as well as interpret body language better.”

But one wonders why he paints such celebrities? “They are modern icons. People know them as such. People talk about them as if they know them through the familiarity of their faces in books, magazines, and films. Because a lot of people know them, I want to create a dialog.” He refers to these works as “The skill with which he realizes the personalities leads one to feel that one knows them without any human contact.” This is something akin to contemporary relationships made with ‘friends’ on the Internet. To achieve this effect and absolute clarity Arief Kurniawan sketches and uses numerous photographic studies. He works slowly, applying his limited palette of skin colors and dark waters in up to five layers. The results are fine hyper-real works that each take up to a month to complete. “The layering of my colors is crucial to the texture of my art,” he says. “I start with thin paint and then build up, layer by layer, with the color changing as the painting develops. You can catch the details of a face through a lens but you can only capture the soul through the eyes.”

Arief Kurniawan takes reality and forces us to look at in closely in each of his series. In his celebrity series he does so with hyper-observation. His women impart a cool sensuality and coyness. The faces are dreamy; the lips and mouths of the women are  voluptuous, beckoning, the skin perfect, the noses strong, and hair darkly seductive made more so by the artist’s picturing them haloed by water as they float to the surface. With these floating faces Arief Kurniawan wants to imply a yin/yang element to his work.

“The eye is a window to the soul and the heart,” he says. “The mouth is the soul speaking. The mouth is the soul speaking. The nose creates balance between the eye and the mouth. I want, through the water, to suggest that although these people are here now, they are also moving toward the future”

Arief Kurniawan’s art does not comment on society. Rather he says it is a psychological portrait of universal images, of a certain beauty and “people must make up their own minds about what they are looking at on the canvas. Everyone sees paintings through different eyes.”

Many eyes will see Arief Kurniawan’s art series as messages of peace and harmony in which these is a lively dynamic at work in which there is a lively dynamic at work, one in which these is the potential for dialog, one that embraces both the present and the future.

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