The torment of entanglement on the path to maturity appears to silently scream from every stroke of the pen or brush, but within Ugo Untoro’s work lies an untamed wildness
Words: Kayti Denham; Photos: Roby Supriyanto
Ugo Untoro, native of Yogyakarta, Indonesia’s artistic centre, has exhibited across the region and in Europe to major acclaim. While his style is ever-evolving, making him something of a challenge to serious collectors, his engagement in the artistic process sees him shifting styles and creating pieces that veer from the deadly serious to the more playful ‘unconscious’ experimental pieces that captivate and demand attention. While he professes not to have a distinct message, Untoro is an artist seeking to discover the spiritual aesthetic and value of creating contemporary art that defies the demands of the commercial art market.
Having produced work of the figurative style, most notably his series that depicted the entwined lives of horse and man, he evolved into a narrative depiction of art through the use of calligraphy on mundane and pedestrian objects. This too is complemented by a series he describes as depicting the life of a “Ronin, a Samurai without a Master”. This work combats, through graphic illustration and monochrome sketch, the challenges of a man as he seeks to find meaning and comfort in life, whilst avoiding the pitfalls of fame and duplicity. This arc of exploration that had begun in his early days and saw fever-like appreciation around the time of his 2006 Lonely Riot series led to unforeseen pressures. Many collectors became interested in his work, and the curators who wanted him to show in their galleries created confusion for him. Their inference that he must remain producing one form of art over another caused him to question the value of his notoriety and ‘fame’.
As a person who confesses that he is “driven to produce art, to paint but not to make life easy, to handle art my own way,” he accepts this is a challenging path where each painting occurs with its own problems, forcing him to work in spontaneous response to the conditions that the work creates for him. “Sometimes I am described as an unfinished artist, but all my thinking, all my heart has gone into the work. It’s still me, gaining strength and understanding of what it means through growing as a man to create art. I don’t know, I cannot predict what will happen, if I run out of paint the painting is dictating something to me, that it is finished or I need to make a different approach. I became bored with the telling of stories and felt driven to discover the basic meaning of painting. While the value and spiritual aesthetic of contemporary work today can be compromised, art still needs the value of unspoken spiritual expression. I knew I needed to change style and began to conceptualise work on very large canvases. I create through the texture of the paint, the application, its thickness and through this the painting conceptually evolves.”
Yogyakarta is undeniably the centre for art in Indonesia; the proliferation of art in Yogyakarta has been enabled in part due to its location in Central Java and in part to being the only true sultanate in the country. Rich in artistic tradition, its universities support the development of the arts as does the Sultan, creating an entire community that is proud of its artistic heritage whether as individuals they practise it or not. During the twentieth century and the repressive period of Indonesian’s independence it was only the artists, who gathered and lived in communities in Yogyakarta, that were able to protest the oppression through their work. The atmosphere of Yogyakarta is acutely art-driven, street murals, art markets and portrait painters all contribute to the ‘scene’ and the number of art galleries and exhibition spaces to visit will hold any art lover in thrall with the immense scope and diversity of available works.
It is the quiet suburb of Bantul, some twenty-five minutes from the bustling Jalan Maliboro city centre that is the location of Ugo’s studio. Here in the light of open spaces and the fresh air from the nearby fields is where Ugo works. “When I work I am empty, I love the process and when it is finished I can let it go. I have kept some work, the personal stories or the experience of an experiment. I don’t care what other people’s perceptions are, they can interpret it how they see it. I need to paint what I like. Through this you gain freedom, or craziness, but it is the adventure of the spirit to create. I have never made work that was easy to sell, to support my family, but they understood me. At first they wanted me to work in an office, to have a regular salary but they saw who I was, what I needed to be.”
There has been sacrifice along the way, marriages have failed and there is a sense of sadness at the separation from his children and an acknowledgement that all artists are selfish, and this is something he has been told about himself. “I just do what I have to do,” he admits, and in doing so produces work of mercurial qualities, existing just beyond the boundaries of the easily defined, and from their distance invoking responses that depend entirely on the individual perception of the viewer. In his larger canvases there is a peace in the emptiness that is missing form his earlier works where the torment of entanglement on the path to maturity appears to silently scream from every stroke of the pen or brush, but within all the work there is an untamed wildness, an expanse of freedom, that yes, can border on craziness.
This article was first published in Gallery & Studio Vol 1, 2014