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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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser