Batik master Astuti dabbles
in oils

Fabio Scarpello, Contributor, Yogyakarta

Reading any book on Batik paintings, you will soon realize that Astuti is one of the few artists referred to as a master. What they don't say is that he is a much more rounded artist than that. And what they don't know is that he is a remarkable man.

His frail appearance hides a defiant spirit. Artistically, a continuous search for ""that"" unique style has characterized his career. Even now at 67, he claims to be in a new phase: ""I am in yet another developing period, after 53 paintings I feel my abstract period has come to an end.""

The fact that he is learning to paint with his left hand, as a consequence of a stroke suffered last year, is (to him) only a small detail: ""It is my strong hand, I have always played the guitar and the fingers on my left hand are the ones doing all the hard work.""

His house oozes with art. Canvases are everywhere: Some are finished, some have only just been started and others are waiting in a corner for their time.

While Astuti made his name with batiks, oil painting has always been his passion and that is what he concentrates on today. Yet it is difficult to completely separate the two: ""Back in the 1970s, I had an inspiration to use traditional batik techniques in my painting and in doing so -- together with a few others -- it helped transform batik from applied art (clothes decoration) to fine art (painting).

Unfortunately, batik has fallen victim to its own success. An increase in the demand has provoked a downturn in its artistic quality: ""It's not what it used to be. During the 1970s it was real art with lots of pride behind it. Now -- at its best -- it can be defined as a handicraft, while generally it is only cheaply mass-produced souvenirs, merely 'Coca-cola batiks'"".

Yet Astuti doesn't repudiate his roots: ""Batik was an important and prolific period of my life. Even today I sometimes borrow from its technique by protecting a part of the canvas with wax and paint freely on top. Then, after scraping it off, I can work on the blank parts"".

His individual artistic aspirations and the need for ""immediacy"" are the main reasons for his oil-painting preference: ""What I do in painting is the honest and unfiltered projection of my soul. You can never imprint your imagination straightaway onto a batik the same way you can with oil paintings. Batik is collective and slow work, while oil painting is individualistic and immediate"".

His subjects and style have changed with time. A definite influence comes from the Javanese and Balinese landscapes, with very intricate and delicate examples present, especially in his batik production.

Surrealistic and abstract human figures instead dominate his oil paintings. He claims that surrealism in Indonesia is impregnated in everyday life and it is much more than just an artistic trend: ""Indonesia has a very ancient tradition in surrealism, much before Dali and the like. The thinking behind the wayang (shadow puppet), for example, is a search inside the individual. Their distorted features and unproportioned bodies are other examples. The concept can be amplified: the ambience and the energy emanating from places such as Borobudur and Prambanan are somehow surreal.""

His artistic production is very much a reflection of the world he lives in, and his style is an attempt to go deeper. ""I live here and now and social problems are what I want to highlight. The distorted human figure is to me a means to show the multiple-sided conditions of Indonesians.""

Current issues are his main source of inspiration. Among his most recent creations, Corruption, Reformasi I and II and September 11th merit a special mention. In all of them the surreal context and the clever use of strong colors bring these problems home with impact.

But even within oil painting Astuti diversifies his production. Portraits are another of his interests where -- in stark contrast with his abstract production -- he almost exclusively uses pastels.

The portrait of Afandi, an Indonesian painter, is considered his finest to date. Painted exclusively from the palette, it is deemed technically so perfect to be mistaken for a picture.

""The eyes,"" he says ""follow you around like in a male version of the Mona Lisa"".

But after 40 creative years, with his work exhibited countless times all over Indonesia and in other parts of the world, such as Australia, the U.S.A., Belgium, England, Italy, Holland, France, Germany and Austria, you would expect Astuti to at least slow his drive, but this is not the case.

If anything, he has slightly changed his angle and now aims to educate the masses through workshops with the importance of art: ""I want all the people to understand and appreciate art -- not only those studying it. Art is about creation, recreation, happiness, sadness. Art is life, its real essence and the best medium to understand a country, its people and its cultures.""

Knowing his determination, the outcome can only be a positive one.

Astuti's works can be viewed at his two permanent galleries: Art House I: Salakan, Jotawang, RT 07, RW 03 Yogyakarta, Tel 062-274-411013, Email [email protected], Art House II: Jl. Kumendaman N. 1, Yogyakarta, Tel 062-274-386039, Email: [email protected]

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