Thursday, June 11, 2009

Myth in the abstract

Matheos Viktor Messakh , The Jakarta Post , Jakarta | Thu, 06/11/2009 10:11 AM | Arts & Design

Untitled by Umi Dachlan: Photo by Matheos V. MessakhUntitled by Umi Dachlan: Photo by Matheos V. Messakh

The late art critic Mamannoor once said of Umi Dachlan that she “is like a book that has never been opened; she is a silent and ‘forgotten’ figure”.

The current exhibition of paintings by the late Umi Dachlan at Cemara 6 Gallery in Jakarta confirms Mamannoor’s statement.

To view the works in “Mythomorphic”, an exhibit of 22 abstract paintings, is to ponder the nature of abstract painting as opposed to representational painting – to open the book that is the artist.

The very purity of the abstract works of Umi Dachlan is immediately confronting. Unlike figurative painting, where it is easy to recognize the literal objects in the painting, and often its meaning too, the viewer must approach abstract paintings differently. The viewer must divine meaning and emotion from shapes, colors, lines and patterns. In the case of works by Umi Dachlan, usually there is no title to guide the thoughts and emotions, apart from the overarching exhibition title, “Mythomorphic”.

Within the works on display as part of this exhibition are certain archaic forms and symbols, along with dimensions of religious mythology. For example, a series of paintings, all with the label Untitled, created in 1997, 2005 and 2006, employ archaic coins, giving an impression of antiquity, along with the many connotations of the shape – a circle – and of money.

According to art critic Aminudin TH Siregar, Umi’s paintings demonstrate some of the characteristics of formalism, which was a powerful influence on modern art in the 1960s.

Formalism, which placed the emphasis on significant form, Aminudin said, is evident in the way the artist bestowed simple descriptive titles on some of her paintings: Bidang Hijau dengan Tekstur Emas (Green space with golden texture) (1997), Bidang Vertikal di atas Hijau Abu-abu (Vertical area on grayish-green) (1997) and Goresan-goresan pada Bidang Maroon (Sketches on a maroon area) (1969).

“This implies that Umi Dachlan didn’t seem to imagine a certain meaning for her paintings, but rather had the mere satisfaction of enjoying the formal aspect of the paintings,” Aminudin said.

“At least, from this we can ultimately feel the balance, awareness of harmony between forms, colors and lines in a painting.”

Yet Aminudin added that Umi Dachlan demonstrated an artistic metamorphosis from formalism toward various other directions, including a marked tendency for spiritualism.

“Some of her works deviate to metaphors that seem to comment on social problems,” he said.

The “Mythomorphic” exhibition, organized by Bale Tonggoh Selasar Sunaryo Art Space, the family of Umi Dachlan and Cemara 6 Gallery, is being held as a tribute to Umi Dachlan, who died in Bandung on Jan. 1 this year.

Umi Dachlan was born in Cirebon, West Java, on Aug. 13, 1942. Her father died when she was just seven years old. The ninth of 10 children, she was raised by her mother in a very disciplined and religious family that had a great appreciation for traditional Cirebon visual and performing arts.

The front yard of her house in Cirebon was often the stage for performances of local traditions, such as tari topeng (mask dancing), barong kepet (traditional conjuring) and the martial art silat.

Umi grew up as something of a tomboy with a great admiration for her uncle, a silat coach. She was also a fan of the manly puppet figure Gatotkaca and although she attended an all-girls school, her character was generally described as “firm and strong”.

Bidang Bertekstur dengan Aksen Emas di Atas Biru (Textured Area with Golden Accent on Blue) by Umi Dachlan. Photo by Matheos V. MessakhBidang Bertekstur dengan Aksen Emas di Atas Biru (Textured Area with Golden Accent on Blue) by Umi Dachlan. Photo by Matheos V. Messakh

Her drawing talent became evident when she was in elementary school, and she displayed a tendency to make sketches on walls when angry or scolded.

In 1961, Umi Dachlan moved to Bandung to study interior design at the Bandung Institute of Technology, but changed to painting in her second year.

Soon after graduating, she was given a position as a lecturer in painting, and in 1971 became assistant lecturer for expressive drawing and model drawing.

Umi’s lecturing career began at a time when there was a tug-of-war in art discourse between the Orde Lama (Old Order) and Orde Baru (New Order), between universal expression and social order expression, between abstract painting and figurative painting.

As an artist, she stood firm with her abstract contemplative style, although simultaneously practicing figurative murals.

She developed to become one of the most prominent abstract painters, who brought into sharp focus the presence of the Bandung clique of artists, known in Indonesia as defenders of modern art.

As art critic Toeti Heraty wrote in the exhibition catalogue: “The commotion and disturbance in painting discourse was widespread, and Bandung art has an honorable history. And Umi Dachlan quietly and diligently, without publication or marketing, made herself known through exhibitions of her paintings and work.”

Yet perhaps because of her sensitive character, Umi Dachlan was not a highly productive artist. No more than 30 paintings remained in her collection when she died, in addition to some works held by other collectors.

This might also be related to her perfectionism, said artist and art critic Selasar Sunaryo. “She had an attitude that made her tend to be a perfectionist in her work, or at least [she was] always trying to dig deeper.”

Mythomorphic by Umi Dachlan
Until June 14
Cemara 6 Galeri
Jl. HOS Cokroaminoto No. 9–11
Menteng, Central Jakarta
Tel: (021) 3911823

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