Sun, 19 Jan 2003

Artist incorporates universality in Balinese roots

Rita A. Widiadana, The Jakarta Post, Ubud, Bali

In the world of Ubud painter I Wayan Karja, color is an important means to bridge the spiritual and material world. It is also a means of self-expression: Anger, happiness and sadness.

Wayan Karja is now considered one of Bali's most prominent artists, bringing new blood and freshness to the Balinese art world.

His creations, now widely collected by foreign museums and individual collectors abroad, are revolutionary in terms of themes, colors, ideas and subject matter. They blend together the strong Balinese Hindu culture with the contemporary western concepts of colors and arts.

"The Balinese culture is the basis of my works. I have been digging into the roots of Balinese culture, while exploring and learning about Western culture. Through this process, I am trying to develop a new form of art in a more universal language," smiled the father of three children.

He admitted it required a long process to reach his current level.

"It was my childhood dreams that actually shaped my life," Wayan Karja said in a humble voice.

Like other talented painters living in the famous art village of Ubud, Wayan Karja has always been surrounded with colorful things in the forms of paintings, traditional ceremonial costumes, home decorations and a diverse variety of flowers used as daily offerings in family and village temples.

"My father I Ketut Santra is a painter and my mother is also an artist. They let me play with colorful paints since I was a toddler," recalled Wayan Karja, now head of the Fine Arts Department at the Denpasar Arts Institute (STSI).

Wayan Karja was a happy child with a wide opportunity to explore the wild artistic world of Bali.

"I was so lucky living in the home and village where the island's most prominent artists live."

Born in Penestanan Kaja, Ubud, a famous art village in Bali, in l965, Wayan Karja's strong interest in the arts flew naturally from a very young age.

"My father had never taught me how to paint or to draw something. He just provided me with abundant art materials and encouraged me to create artistic items with those available materials," remembered the painter.

Moreover, everywhere in the village were art studios with artists. "My father, my uncles, my neighbors and friends, all of them were painters."

Penestanan and Pengosekan villages in Ubud have been the most famous art villages in Bali since the early l930s. The villages were paradise for European artists like Rudolf Bonnet, Arie Smit and Walter Spies who introduced and advocated "new styles" to the traditional and conventional Balinese painting styles.

The art movements were known as Pita Maha art movement (mostly in Pengosekan) and the Young Artists school of Penestanan advocated by Arie Smit in the late l950s. The works of most Young Artists' followers were all based on their Balinese culture. The themes ranged from natural and manmade objects within their surroundings.

Color was applied "flat" to surfaces delineated by a graphic outline and the icons were repetitive, distributed in symmetry or parallelism across the canvas -- just like in any other Balinese painting. Yet, their bright, brazen colors, well delineated by a thick graphic contour, contrasted with the dark or subdued atmosphere of the paintings from the other schools.

Wayan Karja's father and most of the neighboring artists were the faithful followers of the Young Artists School.

"At that time, I voluntarily adopted the styles of this school because I saw them everywhere, from when I woke up in the morning till midnight."

He called this period the "Freedom Year".

"I could paint anything I wanted with every color I chose. It was an unforgettable time for me. But, it ended when I was 10 years old," he said. In l978, his father sent him to another painter, I Ketut Sudjana, to learn more about painting skills.

"It was a horrible moment for a wild kid like me who used to have such freedom. I had to paint, to mix colors, to learn human anatomy and brush strokes in accordance with my guru."

He later acknowledged that this was his most important period in shaping his career as a painter.

Wayan Karja was later sent to the Ubud High School of Fine Arts and continued his study at Udayana University's Fine Arts Department in Denpasar.

"At school, I learned a lot about diverse kinds of art movements both in our own country and in the West. It really opened my mind and widened my horizons," he said.

He said it was exciting learning about works of the great masters like Van Gogh, Monet and Mattisse.

"I learned very hard how to adopt their styles -- impressionism and post impressionism -- and incorporate them in my own work," he admitted.

While still in Ubud, he found that nobody showed him these differences in the artistic styles. "Everybody in Ubud sticks to all the traditions and establishment."

Dissatisfied with this situation, Wayan Karja decided to pursue education in the United States.

"I was a laughing stock in my own village. Nobody understood why I wanted to go to the States while foreign artists learned how to paint here in Ubud."

He studied and taught in the Arts Department of the College of Fine Arts at the University of South Florida. There, he earned a Masters of Fine Arts.

"When I first arrived in the States, I was a kind of poor student who experienced a serious cultural shock. Everything was so different. I really missed my hometown, my friends in Bali, and more importantly I lost all of my Balinese subject matter."

But, it was in the United States that he found a new and challenging world of art.

"I was very much inspired by the works of Paul Klee and several contemporary artists like Jurgen Partenheimer."

He admitted at first he did not understand their works at all.

His professor, Mernet Larsen, had opened the door to the international art world.

"He taught me everything."

Wayan Karja immediately absorbed the "Western influence" to deepen his emotional, intellectual as well as his artistic insights. It also resulted in a major change in his artistic direction.

Larsen wrote about his student: Abstract expressionism taught him to value visible process, traces on the hand and spontaneity. From minimalism, he learned the impact of simplicity. From post- impressionism, he obtained knowledge on how color can create a sense of "place" even if it is an abstract place.

Wayan Karga said: "Before I went to the United States, I had tried to paint abstract works. But the Balinese styles and colors were clearly visible. Besides, I still had no courage to declare that my works were abstract."

Working in the United States and in some European countries widened the distance from his Balinese roots. Unable to conjure up either Balinese or Western images, Wayan Karja started to look into his own feelings and intuition and tried to convey them on canvases. He was entering his transitional period.

"Painting became a self-contemplative effort. Each layer of color had a deep meaning," he said. He concentrated more on philosophical ideas than on visual forms by using lines, shapes and colors.

"I imagine myself being surrounded by various colors and I can feel that every color has a different influence upon me."

In the Hindu tradition, his strong foothold, every color has either symbolic significance or the ability to bodily affect the spectators, to influence spiritual, emotional states or frames of mind.

"During the early stages of my career, those elements emerged rigidly. Now, they became more subtle."

This, he gained through a wide exposure to his own diverse culture.

"I think, every artist must see other places, other works. He or she must go to many places to learn the difference while enhancing the similarity."

How painting affects him, Wayan Karja mentioned that the process of creating an art form such as painting is like making offerings to the Gods of the Balinese Hindu people.

"Painting is the most beautiful thing for me. It entertains and relaxes me. The process of making it helps me to understand life in more depth. Sometimes, it even gives me answers to my curiosity about God."