Complex simplicity in the art of Yunizar

An encounter with the work of an Indonesian contemporary artist.

Whilst at Art 13, I came across a startling pair of canvases (pictured above) by an Indonesian artist, Yunizar. The way they had been exhibited on two parallel walls, made them line up like the pages of a book on approach to the booth of Gajah Gallery. They formed part of a larger series titled “Kisah,” which, translated from Bahasa, incidentally means story.

Each canvas was populated with cartoon-like drawings of human figures and animals, interspersed with single words and letters. The latter was much denser, with a roughly textured band of red pigment running across the top, surrounding a small sun. As my eyes passed over each canvas, they tried to “read” Yunizar’s intriguingly coded story. The seemingly simply rendered characters and scribbled letters signposted an almost primitive, uninhibited, and pure materialisation of expression; and I was reminded of the Lascaux cave paintings in South-western France.

The stark contrast of the pigments with painted surface alludes to a similar visual trope as printed word on paper; it reels the viewer in, for a closer look, until they reach a similar proximity to the paintings as a person reading a book.

Close-ups of the paintings. (Image Courtesy: Jasdeep Sandhu, Gajah Gallery)

A discussion with Yunizar’s gallerist and dealer, Jasdeep Sandhu revealed a more complex contextual web in which Yunizar’s work operates.  Sandhu explained that Yunizar’s generation of artists was a confrontation between the dominant tendency towards realistic painting and newer, progressive forms of art-making.  His experiences as a cultural and linguistic outsider in Java, where he migrated from his home in Sumatra, influenced the function of his work; communicating more directly with his audience through universally recognised symbols. This sensibility is quite similar to another artist I quite admire, Yinka Shonibare, who in a recent interview in TimeOut London highlighted how he found it “intoxicating” when viewers of his work felt less pressure to “know too much about art to actually engage with it”. 

I came across a third Yunizar canvas in this booth which was equally curious.

Yunizar, Left, Right, Up, Down, 2013, 200 x 250cm (Image Courtesy: Jasdeep Sandhu, Gajah Gallery)

It featured a male and female figure highlighted in chrome yellow, standing between two dark painted hemispheres. I couldn’t help but think of the story of Adam and Eve, or at the very least the way we often view the world in terms of personal and material priority. The possibilities for interpreting these canvases were manifold and undoubtedly enjoyable.

On asking about Yunizar’s presence and viability as a collectable artist, he smiled and explained the expanse of his collector base within the Asian region. Along with private collections and museums, Yunizar’s paintings can be encountered at the Singapore Art Museum and National University of Singapore Museum. These three canvases alone left a lasting impression on my mind and I look forward to seeing more of his work on an international scale.

 

 

Yunizar, Kisah, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 200 x 250 cm and Yunizar, Tentang Merah (about red), 2013, 200 x 250cm. (Images: Gajah Gallery)
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Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge