Sun, 01 Oct 2000

Young painter Erica, a gem or just a trend?

By Mehru Jaffer

JAKARTA (JP): Erica Hestu Wahyuni is just like her paintings. She is cuddly like a teddy bear, cheerful and full of joy. And to be in the company of the 29 year-old painter surrounded by her work is to be constantly reminded of what a lovely place the world is. So colorful and carefree. So childlike and charming.

"Every collector I know wants an Erica today. She is a great success and it is due partly to her playful personality," said Hendra Hadiprana, a friend and gallery owner who has been in the art business for almost half a century.

"She is like this every day. Energetic, on the go and never grumpy," added a staff member at her Pondok Indah house in South Jakarta.

Erica agrees that she seldom wastes time brooding. Whenever she is faced with a problem she confronts it and tries to overcome it immediately, preferably on her own. She holds her extremely happy childhood responsible for her sunny nature.

Born in Yogyakarta in a traditional Javanese house that is situated very near the Kraton and a beautiful bird market, Erica recalled her entire childhood as being soaked in romance. Here romance is not reduced to a relationship just between a man a woman. What also turns her on is the feel of a baby on her lap, a familiar smell or the thought of a horse drawn cart on the streets of the city of her birth.

The 150 by 300 cm oil on canvas titled Life in Yogyakarta is a typical example where Erica puts paint to her favorite theme of domestic bliss.

The father is grinning, a sewing machine is behind mother and child who are seated on a comfortable sofa surrounded by toys. Other details suggest that perhaps there is music playing in the house. The next room shows a television set with a fish painted on the screen and with antennas shaped like a pair of a butterfly wings.

The streets around this happy home are abuzz with a flurry of activity while the skyline is ablaze with a warm glow of oranges and yellows from a sun that seems to be in the mood for a game of hide and seek. This theme is repeated in many of Erica's works that have been selling like hot cakes ever since she held her first solo exhibition about five years ago. Now her fame is not confined just to her own country. She has exhibited in Singapore and Manila and the day The Jakarta Post met her she was in the midst of packing feverishly to leave in a few hours in the company of a group of Indonesian painters traveling for a month to Moscow and Lisbon.

Erica is considered one of the hottest selling Indonesian painters perhaps because her colorful canvasses and childlike sketches cheer people living in the midst of so much gloom and uncertainty with bomb threats and fluctuating currency confronting them at every turn. Yet another collector admits that Erica's work is extremely decorative but he also wonders if it will continue to please in the future. The problem with her work is that it is easy to produce within a very short period of time. Experts consider it attractive but doubt its worth in decades to come. "Erica is a trend. I am still waiting for the master stroke from this young, energetic painter," said a gallery owner who does not want to be quoted.

As for Erica, she takes all the criticism along with the accolades with the same sporting spirit. "When any aspect of critical appreciation of my work makes sense to me I learn and try to change. For example I agreed with an earlier criticism that I used too many large canvasses. These days I enjoy painting on smaller areas," she said, forever checking her watch as if trying to be a step ahead of the fast fleeing time. She paints every single day like one would make a daily entry into a diary. This act of discipline she has inherited from Nyoman Gunarsa her teacher at Indonesia Institute of Arts, Yogyakarta, her alma mater.

"Gunarsa told me that I should never be a slave to my moods. That I should paint daily like I must eat, drink and clean myself everyday," Erica admitted.

Apart from not being temperamental, Erica defies yet another image popular about artists in the collective minds of people. She is not poor and starving by any stretch of the imagination. And neither does she sport an uncombed mane of long hair. Although Erica does not see herself as a rich woman. She says that she has enough money in life to be able to enjoy living, and every penny has come to her step by step through a lot of hard work. "I don't have much cash. My paintings are my only asset," said Erica whose husband, also a painter decided to open a Padang restaurant and it is he who is the constant presence at home with their eight year old daughter while she commutes regularly between Jakarta, Bali and Yogyakarta when she is not traveling outside the country.

She swears that she does not have money on her mind all the time. All she does is paint and considers herself lucky each time she is able to sell a canvass which can fetch her as much as Rp 25 million (US$2,840) or more these days. About five years ago it was possible to buy an Erica for as little as Rp 150,000.

When asked if she still sold some paintings at the old price, she said, "Do you know how many paintings I give away as gifts to friends? If the same are later sold at exorbitant prices in the market is it my fault?" she would like to know. Once a painting leaves her hand as a gift or a commodity she says that is it. It is no longer her responsibility.

She does feel that the art market is becoming too speculative today. The work of unknown, very young artists is hiked up unrealistically. But she does not see the quality of art going down for time and better knowledge about art will soon make people decide for themselves what is important in art and what is not.

Erica is optimistic that all the mistakes being made collectively at the moment by painters, collectors and rogue traders will eventually serve as a lesson to all concerned. Then this frantic activity of buying and selling will calm down and art lovers will return to the artist's studio to quench their quest having turned their back on the glut at auction houses. The media too has a responsibility to help the public to be able to sift good art from the mediocre and to encourage painters to talk about what they are doing, she feels.

Meanwhile Erica plans to continue painting with the dream of having a community studio in Yogyakarta. Here on Erica's Island she would like to involve the entire village to indulge itself in all kinds of artistic activities, from reviving the traditional toys of Java to pottery and painting.

She feels that the city has given her so much by way of inspiration that she would like to invest back into the city. She has such pleasant memories of growing up in Yogyakarta that she does not want to let go of anything. Even the fact that she was brought up by a stepmother does not daunt her bubbly spirits.

"I am happy to have had the love of two mothers," she said adding that as a child she was able to enjoy the hustle-bustle of her mother's home where seven of her siblings lived and also the peace and quite of her stepmother's home where she grew up as an only child.

Erica, who studied at the Indonesian Arts Institute in Yogyakarta, is the grand daughter of Basoeki Abdullah's sister but she does not remember ever having met the master painter. Even today she prefers not to trace her relationship back to Basoeki as she would hate to be compared. She does not much care for realistic paintings. The precision in realism reminds her of mathematics which she hated in school. One day when one of her teachers asked students who did not appreciate maths to leave the classroom Erica was the only one to get up and actually leave.

The world in which Basoeki, Affandi and Hendra grew up was a very different world to my own, said Erica who sees no contradiction in painters taking advantage of information technology and computers and a little bit of commerce today and to enjoy the physical world as much as the world of art and abstract pleasures.