Wayan Karja's Minimalist Symbolism

It is often said, among lesser wouls, that intelligence and knowledge run counter to artistic spirit, and that divine inspiration is ever found among men of sane brain and broad learning Greater senile knew better, an indest de good artists too. Da Vinci and Kandinsky were no ignoramuses, nor were Ceanne and Matise to mention but a few whose names have left, besides paintings, braces of write intelligence, and even genius, yet few Indonesian artists Soedjojono and Nashar being exceptions have ever theorized, and still fewer Balinese. None of the latter. No Balinese painter, to this day, has taken a step backward to ponder for a while on his works and say "This is what I am doing, and here is the reason." None has ever shown himself as being fully "conscious" of the world he was expressing and of the changes his works the harbinger of. All have followed the mood of their day, and been at best silent witnesses always in images and never in worlds. 

This is now changing Wayan Kara (39), a young artist from Ubud and lecturer at the 15 of Denpasar Denpasar School of Art), is, as in the dialectics he shows between work and explanation and between art and theory as well as in the quality of his paintings proper reconciling Balinese art with knowledge and intelligence.

At first glance, Karja's works appear to be minimalist-abstract. They display a slow mutation, Srihadi-like, that is in infinite gradations, of color nuances into one another. This transformation creates a circular movement that brings to mind "mandalas a Hindu symbolic representation of the world. But instead of accumulating symbolic details (deities, monsters, etc), as seen throughout the Hindu-Buddhist world, we see the mandala ticed its core, representing the unending movement of cosmic forces. In some paintings, a "cleft" in the middle of the canvas conveys the idea of "the unity of opposite forces" (Rwa Bhinneda). Thus one is far from abstraction rather, Karja's work represents spiritual philosophy expressed in symbols. A proper name for this style might be "minimalist symbolism."

Karja is not the first to use the discoveries of modern art to convey a "Balinese" symbolic message. Since Nyoman Erawan in the eighties, many Balinese artists have presented in their works Balinese concepts and concerns, dressed up in modernist garb. Their attitude, however, was different from Karja's: it was reactive: more claim of "Balinese identity" than a visual affirmation of Hindu spirituality. The "chequered cloth", "mountain symbol", or "barong eyes" motifs found in their paintings serve more as an affirmation of "Balineseness" than as a spiritual reflection. These motifs express the helplessness of artists whose culture has been debased by exoticism and who take refuge in esoteric Balinese symbolism as the last resort for their threatened identity.

Nothing like this with Karja. His symbolism is no refuge. It is the manifestation of a coherent worldview, that of a man and artist with a clear mind and strong creative power. Interestingly, not only is Karja's symbolism simply expressed in his paintings, mirroring what he sees as the struggle of simple competing forces, but also has a clear view of this symbolism, the theory of which he formulates in simple words in an introductory text. There he explains at length the Balinese concept of the "mandala": the pangider-ider, its association with Balinese color symbolism, and his relation to it. He also positions his works, and own symbolism, in the larger context of international art and theory of color, etc. In short Karja, by his works, and by the "awareness" that accompanies these works, demonstrates himself as being a free artist: he knows what he thinks, he knows what he paints, and he knows what he feels.

It is on this last level of "feeling" - that I would like to focus now. Karja's use of color in his Mandalas is endowed with nothing if not a strong intensity of feeling. He doesn't simply use color; he also "works" it to achieve the nuances that will place it firmly within the portrayal of Being that is Mandala. Each color each nuance, is thus a sum of accumulated energy that is slowly released in the whirling Mandala. Karja's sensitivity is not an extrovert, an "exploding" one. It is, on the contrary, introverted, directed towards the self.

We are far in Karja's works from the angst expressed in the empty "void" of classical minimalism. His "minimalist symbolism" carries with it the optimism of the spirit. It binds the artist to the notion of God: a God-World that is life and death, beginning, and end, but always an eternal, transforming presence in which Man finds his beginning and his end. Karja is a symbol of the spiritual kind.

Karja is not as prominent in the Indonesian art world as he ought to be. This is due to his peculiar career path. After a childhood career as a talented painter of the "naive" Young Artist School of Penestanan, near Ubud, he took up art studies at the Art Department of Udayana University before flying, as soon as he could, scholarship in hand, to Florida for a master's degree. There he matured: he discovered the use he could make of minimalism in a Hindu context. His "minimalist symbolism" was born, and it has been from the outset so successful that Karja has had little time to exhibit in Indonesia. When he is not teaching at the Indonesian Institute of Art (ISI) in Denpasar, he is usually somewhere on the road, exhibiting one day in Basel (Switzerland), the next in Germany, before flying to the States or Australia for yet other exhibitions. The quiet Penestanan artist and ISI lecturer proves himself to be also, quietly, an international painter. 

One of the rare authentic "colorists" of Indonesia, Karja is, furthermore, endowed with a stunning understanding of where he stands as an artist, Wayan Karja is probably promised a bright future as a painter. Will it be beyond the whirling of the Mandala? Time will tell.

Dr. Jean Couteau 

Art Critic

Jakarta, 2004

Kupu-kupu art Projects Managemant

Jl. Tebet Timur Dalam V No. 33, Jakarta Selatan. 

Centre For Strategic and International Studies. Jalan Tanah Abang III, No 23-27 Jakarta Pusat.