Influenced by anime, videogames and comics, 37-year-old Yogyakarta-based Nyoman Masriadi paints exaggerated human figures that embody his humorous observations on topics ranging from personal encounters to the behavior of art collectors. His work has made headlines with its success at auction. In October 2008, Sotheby’s Hong Kong sold his painting The Man From Bantul (The Final Round) (2000), in which three muscular men box with each other in a crowded arena, for five times its high estimate at HKD 2.3 million (USD 296,800), setting a record for contemporary Southeast Asian art.
In recent years, Masriadi’s paintings have been shown at the Singapore Art Museum (2008), Taipei Museum of Contemporary Art (2009), Jogja Biennale X (2009), and at Singapore’s Gajah Gallery (2010). This year, the artist’s first solo show in the United States was held at New York’s Paul Kasmin Gallery in April. In the weeks before this US debut, ArtAsiaPacific spoke to the artist about his early works, the growing international interest in Indonesian contemporary art and his latest paintings that explore the relationship between temptation and one’s conscience.
Following the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and the fall of General Suharto in 1998, the Indonesian art scene’s interest shifted, almost overnight, from conservative expressionist paintings with traditional themes to gritty, socially engaged art. What kind of works were you making during this period?
From 1993 to 1998, I was enrolled at the Indonesia Institute of the Arts in Yogyakarta, so most of my works at that time were for strictly prescribed course assignments. I took a break from university and returned to Bali, where I was born and spent my formative years, and I explored various styles before focusing on figures. I’m only proud of my work after 1999, because that’s when I developed a particular style that explored deformation and the different ways you could draw the human figure. It happened to coincide with the post-Suharto years, but I think that the transition had more to do with me being ready to explore and synthesize my own style.
Your painting Karya Besar Kolektor (“Big Work of the Collector”) (2000), depicts art collectors as rats wearing business suits and painting a black-skinned figure. In what ways does this express your thoughts on the art world?
It does reflect my opinions on the art world, but I don’t really take it that seriously. It’s meant to be tongue in cheek. Karya Besar Kolektor is about artwork that is made to fulfill the need of an appreciator who has preconceived ideas of what they want. It shows the different facets of creativity, be it natural or constructed.
Tell us about your sources of inspiration.
These days, I’m often inspired by computer games. My painting Magina (2009) states my view of the video-game world. It is named after a fighter character from one of my favorite computer games, Defense of the Ancients. Magina, who is a manipulator
of energy, is in a battle pose, balancing on one foot and holding a large, double-sided blade in each of his outstretched arms. He has all the physical traits of the character in the game—a tribal tattoo, grayish skin, his hair in a ponytail—but they are painted in my own style. In my mind, this is what Magina looks like.
But earlier on, my inspiration came more from comic strips, which I have read avidly since I was a child. Those deformed figures are very much inspired by that, but on an indirect, subconscious level. Meanwhile, the recurrent incorporation of speech bubbles in my work is a more direct homage to comics. My interest in video games is merely a progression of that childhood fascination for graphics.
How has the growing popularity of Indonesian art in the international art market affected the local community?
It has been invigorating. I feel there’s a lot more enthusiasm and initiative within the Indonesian art community to develop new activities. There are so many more exhibitions and art projects compared to several years ago. It’s given rise to new events such as the Jogja Art Fair, which held its third edition last July. Previously, there was only the Yogyakarta Biennale, which tended to be rather predictable. The Jogja Art Fair is a more vibrant showcase of everything that the city has to offer.
In late 2010, you were working on Tragedy, which depicts a wide-eyed man towering over a mountain of cigarette butts with his mouth full of lit cigarettes, when Mount Merapi erupted near Yogyakarta. You evacuated your family to a safer area, but you made several trips back to your studio to complete the work. What motivated you to do this?
The work was almost finished when Merapi erupted. I returned to my studio initially to accompany my wife, who was worried about our house and wanted to sweep all the volcanic dust that had accumulated inside. Our house was outside of the main no-go zone, so we weren’t particularly worried about returning. The “tragedy” of the title
is more about me trying to quit smoking than anything else. It’s a personal exploration of what I was going through at the time.
Can you tell us about the ideas behind some of the new paintings you are currently exhibiting?
My two newest paintings are called Dark Angel and Red Devil (both 2011). The angel and the devil both have the ability to empower and liberate a person. Their large, extended wings represent that idea of power and freedom. In my work I have often focused on the quest for power between different factions.
I don’t usually paint demons, and Red Devil is probably the most overt depiction of a negative force in my work, but it’s also about the coexistence of good and evil within people. The difference of who is “good” and who is “evil” is not always clear-cut, and it’s common to see somebody who is supposedly a good person doing evil deeds, or vice versa.