Wahyudin on Erizal As’s REFIGURING PORTRAITURE, Gajah Gallery, Singapore, 15 Dec 2016—2 Jan 2017.


“Do you know how to read faces? When a man goes off in search of the face he’s lost, do you think it’s enough to chase its meaning?”
—Orhan Pamuk, The Black Book

ONE RAINY SATURDAY AFTERNOON, on the 3rd of December 2016, I asked this question during my visit to Erizal As’ studio on kampung Bugisan, Yogyakarta.

The question was intended as a vehicle of knowledge directing me to an understanding and appreciation of the ten paintings—all of which were created on the end of 2016—by the artist born in Padang Panjang, West Sumatera, on 3 February 1979. Nonetheless, the ten paintings which altogether make up this Refiguring Portraiture exhibition are intended to focus on human portraits; with the faces in particular central to the composition of each canvas.

To my surprise, Erizal responded to this notion by taking me back to 27 January 2006 when he exhibited his final year Fine Arts showcase entitled Social Challenges as Ideas for the Creation of Paintings at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Indonesia Institute of the Arts (ISI) Yogyakarta. That particular event is significant not only as the defining moment in his artistic career, but also as a mark of his presence as a professional painter equipped with a sense of social awareness—a critical view on events of life unwinding in the society of which he live.

In the catalogue of that 2006 exhibition, he stated the following: “The slowly shifting societal values evident in the rise unemployment, numbers of abandoned children, prostitution, pornography, etc., which emerged through modernization is rather worrying. These social problematic formed an internal anxiety which I then translated on my canvas.”

There were about 20 canvases depicting portraits in numerous poses, painted in acrylic and pencil. They were created over a three year period—from 2003-2006. They vary in sizes: the smallest being 50 x 100 cm and the largest goes up to 200 x 150 cm. Nineteen of these paintings were done in a surrealistic manner, one painting in particular entitled Aktor di Balik Layar (An Actor Backstage) saw the canvas filled up with faces of different shape, age, and gender—including a self-portrait of the artist himself. It was even put on a spotlight in a color scheme and composition which is reminiscent to that of S. Sudjojono’s legendary 1947 painting, Kawan-Kawan Revolusi (Friends of the Revolution).

This being said, Erizal positioned his paintings as a ‘model of statement’ to the social reality of humanism around him. In return, this model granted him a firm spot within the narrative of Indonesian Visual Art. The last decade however has seen Erizal and his creative practices move away from this model, and shifted instead into a ‘model of picture’ as an artistic quarry based on lines and visual rhythm—evident from his solo exhibitions Lines Projects (Koong Gallery, Jakarta, 28 September 2007), Rhythm of Art (Philo Art Space, Jakarta, 11-24 July 2012), and Visual Symphonies (Ganesha Gallery, Bali, 2 August-1 October 2012).

Further, it is important to note that this particular model of drawing and artistic quarry is a process which strengthens his creative energy in all the attempts at vigorously focusing on the human portrait. As the following four years have proven, Erizal went on to produce the Faceless Series, first presented along a series of paintings by Nyoman Adiana in the Visage Blanc Sans Visage exhibition at Sangkring Art Project, Yogyakarta, on 28 April 2016. Other than the ones exhibited in that exhibition, one of the paintings from Erizal’s Faceless Series was selected to be shown in an exhibition held on 28 May-28 October 2016 at OHD Museum in Magelang, entitled Sapiens Free.

As far as I am concerned, it is important to focus on the Faceless Series as it is an appropriate point of departure of which to further understand the aesthetic development and artistic achievement which Erizal exhibits in Refiguring Portraiture.

I would hence like to position this exhibition as the perfecting of form, technique, and concept of Erizal’s portraitures. This is evident, for instance, in King and Queen (2016, acrylic and oil on canvas, 120 x 120 cm x 2 panels), exceptionally painted using the palette knife—a technique rarely seen in contemporary Indonesian art of today. The brushstrokes on his canvases formed layers of textures creating a chaotic mix of strokes, drips, and scratches of lines and oil pigment. Collectively they allow its audience to visualize the notion presented by the painting—one which depicts the extent of power held by these monarchs.
Instead of portraying an ostensive figure of the King, such that of the monarchs of United Kingdom, the diptych merely depicts the King and Queen as a symbolic entity– a profile based on the perceived awareness and memory reflected upon the audience. Erizal’s canvases thus serve as a mimicry of how the people negatively perceive monarchies and people of power.

It is also for this reason that in attempts to camouflage the ostensive figure of the King and Queen through rhythmic lines, expressive strokes, and impulsive drips—this painting instead unconsciously reveal the “true face” of the otherwise absent monarchs.

At that point, the human face became terra incognita: an uninhabited space charged with perceptional and reactional values—to validate a certain standard of socio-politics and aesthetics. These values are impressively represented in the works Ambitious (2016, oil on canvas, 200 x 180 cm) and Distinction (2016, oil on canvas, 250 x 180 cm). Once again, these two works proved that Erizal did not intend to paint a figure in a conventional manner, it is rather a means to an end of painting the ambition and ruthlessness of human character; to make it seem like an eternal existential notion of body and soul or delusion and reality.
With this eternal existentiality, Erizal further reminds us of what Orhan Pamuk calls “A hesitant and exhausted fascination” or “a sharp indecisiveness”—depicted in thin layers of paint on the work Invisible (2016, oil on canvas, 200 x 180 cm).

No matter how fascinating we find the portraits on Erizal’s canvases are, its presence is not more than a glimpse of expression which further confuses—or even deceives—our judgment of its sincerity. Who would have guessed that the human face could conceal countless secrets? These portraits exist because it would probably be unwise to leave the secrets of humanity to evaporate into thin air. They deserve instead to be immortalized, to be questioned, contrasted, revealed—that they fill the gaps of our curiosity—to know the face which mimics greed and violence of mankind, or its sympathy and wisdom.

“I feel like my creative endeavors in painting to study the likeness of others and myself has reached quite a satisfactory level. I have yet to discover another method, other than translating its meanings through the brushstrokes and drips of pigment on my canvas”, said Erizal.

With that in mind, Erizal further reassures me of the painter’s role as what Philosopher Cynthia Freeland says in Portraits and Persons: A Philosophical Inquiry (2010: 14) as an “alchemist willfully revealing sensibility, awareness, and liveliness of the human soul”.

Rest assured, my vehicle of knowledge has finally arrived to its destination—along with a new equation as to solve the puzzles of Erizal’s portraitures—like that of his work, Invisible. Nonetheless, this new equation is relevant in his process of making art; a visual outcome of which is so often artistically associated in great likeness to the works of British contemporary painter Antony Micallef and Romanian painter Adrian Ghenie.

In the mean time, it is best that we grasp and enjoy ten of Erizal’s latest works in this exhibition as an unfinished draft, albeit one which breathes a new life and fulfills the Indonesian history of portraiture.

A print version of this essay has been published on the exhibition catalog. An Indonesia print version of this essay appears in Jawa Pos on March 26, 2017.

Translated by Angelina Chairil.