Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Art of Living Dangerously

Transformations of Ignatius Widiapradja

Ignatius Widiapradja’s home and studio shelter shards of shattered histories - skulls, taxidermy freaks, body organ models, religious relics, ancient books, Salvation Army dolls, mutilated mannequins. That’s not too unusual for a contemporary painter. After Damien Hirst institutionalized morbid realism (and became the richest living artist in history), young painters began hooking up with existentialism and accessorizing their lives with gothic props. Widiapradja is anything but a poseur in this territory. Like the reptiles and Bible stories that dramatize his paintings, he is himself transformational. Even his name is an adaptation.

“I was five years old in 1965, ‘the year of living dangerously.’ The Suharno government fell to a coup that managed to blame the Chinese. There were horrible reprisals everyday. Fortunately, a powerful village leader gave my father an Indonesian name to protect our family. That‘s when I became Widiapradja,“ he explained.
“The Year of Living Dangerously” is an Oscar winning Peter Weir film about 1965 in Indonesia. Made in 1982, it identified the CIA, not the Chinese, as masterminds of the 1965 coup. In America, it’s known as probably the best work ever by actors Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hunt. For a five year old ethnic Chinese boy in West Java, “The Year of Living Dangerously” was an ironic understatement. It lasted much longer than a year, abruptly ended childhood and began shaping a world view that would desperately claw its way into artistic visions.

“Indonesian schools closed in 1965, for two years. Daily demonstrations continued even longer. Between the ages of five and twelve, I was never allowed to leave the house without bodyguards. For awhile I saw dead bodies floating in the water every day. Friends were killed for voting Communist. Friends were killed for being Chinese. Fear makes one aware of his utter vulnerability. I became acutely aware and constantly reexamined my life view,” he recalled.

Widiapradja attended a strict Roman Catholic school and was trained for twelve years in the dogmatic Old Dutch school of drawing and painting. Yet ethnic Chinese students were admitted to Indonesian universities in such limited quotas that art school was impossible. He moved to America in 1979 to attend the University of Texas in El Paso. Widiapradja didn’t think he could learn much there about drawing and painting but he was impressed by the jewelry department. His grandfather had been a master goldsmith, so he took up a family tradition. By the mid 1980‘s, he was on the fast track to international recognition as a jewelry artist - featured at the American Craft Museum and included in their world tour exhibitions. Drake hired him to teach jewelry but that discipline was becoming frustrating.

“Education kept leading me to more doubts and investigations into the nature of living. I wasn’t able to see the history of civilization as progressive. Persecution still exists, brutality and torture even. Evolution moves in baby steps, at least measured emotionally. The ideas that entertained my mind were too big to be expressed within the discipline of jewelry so I started painting again. I rejected abstraction, for the same reasons. I returned to old Dutch realism because abstraction couldn’t accommodate expressions of individual struggle that I was feeling,” he explained.

Widiapradja’s paintings today, mostly seven foot squares, can accommodate big ideas. Many are riffs off themes drawn from sacred texts.

“Realism forces you to embrace process. When you are forced to the edge of the cliff, you lose the luxury of entertaining options. Realistic imagery does the same thing - your expression comes out of necessity. Religious painting is similarly lacking in options. Subjective matter is religious, I’m not. I’m attracted though to sacred texts.

“Books are symbolic of knowledge, the forbidden fruit. That makes them the touchstone between good and evil, the true and the pseudo, the proven and the mystic. I grew up in a mystic place. Java is that kind of environment. We performed animal sacrifices every year - Old Testament style. We uncovered the center of the floor of the house and fed the earth there the blood of a goat. My father’s factory demanded the blood of cattle. We placed the skulls on the rafters then,” he recalled.
Widiapradja reads both fatalism and desperation in old sacred texts.

“The Old Testament is full of hard decisions from the edge of the cliff, brutal ones even. Abraham had to decide to kill a son. The story of Adam and Eve explains the subjugation of women ever since. Eve came from Adam’s rib. Yet she was hungry for the fruit of the only tree that was forbidden - the tree of knowledge. Again, what a moment. I have always identified with such ideas of faith and knowledge. Most religious philosophers have too.” he explained.

Then, as if to illustrate the regressive history of civilization, he jumped to the New Testament.

“The crucifixion is the most potent image of all time. Imagine, at the moment of his apotheosis, Jesus asks “Why hast Thou forsaken me?” What a moment,” he mused.
Ignatius Widiapradja‘s new paintings comprise “Vanity of Vanities, All is Vanity” at Moberg Gallery in Des Moines, Iowa through August 1.

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