by jean couteau
The first time you pass by it, you may not notice it. Yes, there was a painting on the wall, of no specially striking color, no particularly outstanding form. But it was there. You know it. Simply there, or so you think. But when you pass by the same spot again, and let your eyes glance once more at the painting, only then do you understand: it is not only there, on the wall; you vaguely feel it also belongs here, somewhere inside, in a place you know ‘you don’t know’. The earth and grey colors, colors that are not seen as colors; the lines that seem to refuse the descriptive autonomy of lines; the obstinacy of surfaces that refuse either to give birth to finite forms or to affirm themselves as formless. All point to an art of the depths.
Such are the kinds of impressions one might get from a typical painting by Hanafi (50), like those to be exhibited at the National Gallery in Jakarta from April 6 to April 18, 2010.
Must Hanafi’s type of painting be classified? Classification can help the uninitiated; provide frames of reference and ready made clichés around which to harness judgements, but it cannot catch what is irreducible, unique to the artist—in short , the most interesting part. Yet, we can indeed say, ‘positively’, that Hanafi’s work is abstract. No initiation is needed to reach that conclusion. The ‘forms’ shown on canvas are not there to evoke, even vaguely, any figurative object. But all other attempts at classification are ‘negative’: Hanafi is not reaching out to the ‘extremity’ of figuration before jumping into the ‘musicality’ of the real, like Kandinsky. He is not proposing either a ‘study’ of the visual effects of the geometry of color after the manner of the Mondrian, or, closer to us in Indonesia, Mantofani. He is not an adept of Rayonism like Sonya Delaunay, nor he is making ‘absurd’ Suprematist ‘white on white’ statements like those of Malevitsch Neither is he an abstract expressionist, minimalist, Op-artist, informalist or lyricist. No! Hanafi belongs nowhere “there”. To name his style would be to locate it, whereas it occupies a well-hidden spot in the otherwise well-explored land of abstraction. So much for the claims that everything has been said, that abstraction is “passé”!
Does the artist at work provide us with better clues to understand his work? Let us accompany him to his large, ill-lit studio. When he heads there, brush in hand, his demeanor carries ono peculiar tension. A cigarette hanging at his lips, he simply walks toward the waiting canvas. Nothing shows that he is going to ‘play with colors’, ‘organize canvas space’, or try to expound through action painting the ‘visual structure’ of his personality. No, one must not expect of him any of the antics that are so common among artists intent at demonstrating their mastery of knowledge—their supreme consciousness—or on the contrary, eager to bring forth to the surface that they deem is their ‘subconscious’. No! No story, no organization, no engineered madness are at work. An Hanafi is aware od this.
Why does he choose abstraction? “Because it is not determined by signs,” he insists, “it enables the visually unexpected to happen. The canvas space can be filled with anything. Even if this enables some to lie, it enables me to be true to myself. And in abstraction—only abstraction—even an ‘error’ can produce beauty. “Of course,” he adds, ‘ordinary people are disappointed when they see no finite signs on a painting. But space isn’t limited by signs. I want to reach beyond those signs. Whatever the risks. Failing is of no import. What matters is the ability to take risks. Because liberty can no be achieved without us behaving in a free way.”
“So, I have no design,” he says, twice, with a large smile, while approaching, chest bared, his waiting canvas. He then dips his brush in a waiting bucket of color, stands up, glances sideways, and continues: “What I have to ‘say’ in my paintings usually comes upon me for just a very few seconds, unexpectedly, just like a gift. This cannot be prepared nor engineered, but once it is there, it is a moment of happiness, which I think I have to share with others.” He pauses for a long while, and then whispers with a smile: “If I had a ‘design’, what I expected would probably never take place.” Hanafi is accordingly skeptical of all styles that are overly laden with ‘design’, like geometrical abstraction or the “iconic” art of contemporary fashion, with its simulacra of masterpieces and obsession with media figures. Those styles do not leave much room for the kind of inspired “gift” he is describing.
Hanafi has been talking. Now it is time for him to undertake the painting process proper: casually dropping his cigarette, he calmly approaches the white surface of the canvas, and quickly, without purpose, the basic forms around which he is going to articulate—the word is unavoidable—his painting. If it is too high, he climbs a ladder, without haste. When the basic outline is done, he then proceeds with the second phase, coloring, at the same slow, casual pace. Using the colors of earth—grayish and brownish—bereft of any human emotional intent, jow or sadness. The next day, when the color has dried, he sometimes adds another phase: the drawing of apparently ‘aimless’ lines, neither finite nor infinite, again ‘without design’.
Hanafi is well aware of the “designless-ness” of his works. He coined the word himself. In fact, he sees this designlessness as characterizing not only his works, but his whole life. He is, he says, the son of an ‘ordinary’ family of Purworejo in central Java, who “found’ himself” studying at the SSRI (Secondary School of Art). He dropped out and, wishing to go to Jakarta, he ‘unexpectedly’ came upon a friend at the train station who offered him lodging at his house in Jakarta. After working for a while as a handy man at the President’s hotel in the capital, he became a billboard decorator, before turning, in the early 1990, into a full-fledged artist. All this, he explains, happened as if ‘outside’ his volition, as if by accident. Yet, he was fully aware of it.
If we look at his work, what appears, confirming this absence of design, is a use of the elements of painting in ways that belie their original functions: the line is not meant to delineate” or even less, to “define”, the colors carry no special emotions, there is no organized “construction” of composition to suggest any aesthetic intention, and the shapes/forms that come up do not try to be archetypes. We feel we are in a strange, fluctuating kind of color space, the object of which is obviously to convey not “signs”, those articulate products of the conscious human condition, but rather “states of the soul”—feelings yet to be named, emotions yet to be fully felt, that which somehow hangs about at the lowest layers of the psyche, which Freud called the “id”.
Hanafi, in his works, proceeds like a poet. Just as the latter utilizes words to ‘break’ the meaning, and sounds to add feeling to meaning, all to reach deeper into the indefinite sublime, he too thrives on crossing boundaries: his colors, lines, forms/shapes do not aim at defining, explaining, even telling anything known; their role is more fundamentally to broaden possibilities, to extend to unknown depth the field of feelings and emotions. Painting is to him like poetry is the poets, an art to explore the mysteries of being alive, the depth of his own and the human psyche.
This brings about, unavoidably, the question of the spiritual. Is Hanafi’s work an invitation to meditate? Yes, in the sense that it is an attempt to negate the polarity between the self and the reality outside it, what Hanafi calls the concrete. But—and again we feel the impossibility of categorization—even though the artist is Javanese, let us not think that his work is proposing a “Javanese” kind of meditation. And, indeed, he is not inviting us to focus on rasa, the mythical-cum-mystical “feeling” of Javanese thought. Unlike for example, Srihadi, he is not after (and perhaps even deems impossible) the Union of Man and his Lord (Manunggaling Kawula Gusti) so vaunted by Javanese men of letters. Like his works, his spiritual endeavor belongs “elsewhere”, un-harnessed to any particular culture. It is no more simply that of an abstract artist. Both his spiritual aspirations and works, whenever the “gift” he talks about comes upon him, take him “beyond” past boundaries that he does not even see. As described by his wife, he is a man of many religions and beliefs, which also means a man with no absolute certitudes, no taboos or dogma. Indeed, when he makes forms that are amorphous, lines that die out before taking any shape, colors that generate no particular emotion, isn’t it as if he were hanging between affirmation and questioning, belief and non-belief? As if he were stupefied at the mystery of his own self, and the world with it? As if he were in awe?
And since I must affirm what I feel and think, let me say that I view this awe as call to ponder the “beyond”—a beyond that is not shaped, not formed, not believed in: a beyond that offers no solution, whether spiritual or otherwise; a beyond that offers no solution, whether spiritual or otherwise; a beyond that butts into a knowledge that is the impossibility of knowledge, a consciousness that is the impossibility of consciousness… But isn’t it in that impossible call that lays, precisely, the very essence of the spiritual?
Hanafi’s painting might be expressions of awe and invitations to reach the “beyond”, yet not all his works are paintings and not all his paintings are abstract. “Sometimes, there is no way out,” he explains, “one has to take a stand.” Then it is not the ‘personal’ that speaks in hanafi’s works, but the “social”. “Signs” are then a necessity, and they have to be the president’s profile that functioned as such ‘signs’. Hanafi showed which side he was on, demonstrated that abstract artists are not all apolitical.
In his current exhibition, he presents an installation, Upside-down, which invites us to ponder on the very meaning of his exhibition. Half-way between the ‘personal’ and the ‘social’, it represents 17 figures of men hanging upside down on a rope. This work, he tells us, is a wink addressed to us all. An invitation to see things differently.
So, while he likes to talk of and to the soul, Hanafi still has eyes for the world around him. Two words sum up his work: intelligence and sensitivity—the two attributes that make an ‘artist’, beyond his or her chosen style.
(adopted from Saat Usia Lima Puluh, Hanafi 2010, Komaneka Fine Art Gallery and Gallery Nasional Indonesia)