From the Divine Animal-February 2004 Edition






A World of Radiant Light 


Modern art most often is defined as an expression of contemporary and avante garde life and perspectives in the industrialized nations of the world, and the term usually refers to North America and Europe exclusively. An equation has been drawn linking modern art to the Western world of industry, technological advances, commerce and cultural history. There is great arrogance in that definition, which implicitly reduces the rest of the planet to the status of second-class citizen. Modernity, in effect, most often is defined as culture moving away from direct connection to the Earth, and distancing itself from humanity, nature and spirituality in the process. The result is that contemporary art has become increasingly conceptual: an abstracted product of the mind that is utterly sterile. Examples range from films of soup cans to installations of sharks mounted in formaldehyde. Art that does not fit this mold is labeled as retro, or simply sentimental.

It might also be said that life itself in the industrialized West has become increasingly abstracted, sterile, dehumanized and removed from natural forces and the world of spirit. Those who reject this mold simply seem to vanish off of the face of the Earth.

Something different is happening now in the world of contemporary art that has the potential to shatter the accepted mold of modernity. The tropical island of Bali has become a magnet for artists from both Western and Eastern nations, who have immersed themselves in a rich and vibrant world of Indonesian arts without forgetting their own heritage. The resulting cultural exchange of inspiration and perspective has worked both ways, and Indonesian artists are expanding their own perspectives to encompass traditions from the West. This informal group is not consciously trying to change the face of modern art, but what they are doing has the potential to do just that. Their work shows an amazing synthesis of styles and values that has taken on a distinct life of its own.

Much of this burst of creative energy has centered around Javanese artist Pranoto and his wife, Australian Kerry Pendergrast. They operate an art gallery in Ubud, Bali, and are drawing an international array of Indonesian, Asian and Western artists to their modeling workshops. Their work shows a fully modernistic vision that sinks its roots deep into the Earth and extends its arms toward humanity, breaks new ground in synthesis of various styles, shows profound respect for both Western and non-Western traditions, and exhibits technical mastery.

Bali creates an especially hospitable setting for the arts. In Bali, artists are respected and accepted, while they are looked down upon in most Western countries. In Ubud, Pendergrast said, virtually everyone is an artist in one form or another. There is a strong sense of artistic community that is enhanced by frequent visits from people who live in many other places. She makes frequent references to her island’s sensuality, lushness and fertility, along with the quality of light and the electric display of color in the human and natural landscape. 

 Pranoto’s and Pendergrast’s work is distinct from each other’s, yet they share certain characteristics that seem to be the defining essence of this contemporary Bali-centered artistic movement (I doubt that these two artists even think of themselves as part of a movement or see themselves as playing a visionary role, but they are doing just that). At the heart of their work is a vibrant sense of life and light that is firmly rooted in the Earth. It is the absolute antithesis of the sterility expressed in most contemporary North American and European art. It is as if the lushness, sensuousness and life force of Bali has captured them and glows from within the work that they do. They produce life-affirming work of the highest order that fully reflects the spirit of an island that some people have likened to paradise. Nature and humanity are the roots from which their art flows.

Their work also shares the ability to synthesize the styles and essence of native Indonesian art forms with those of European and Asian traditions. Do not think this simply is a lumping together of various styles. It is not. Instead, it is a wholly organic synthesis that is far greater than the sum of its parts. Indonesian batik traditions form the backbone of their paintings and set the tone. Pranoto began as a batik artist, and his mastery of this art form is apparent both in his own work and in the work of other artists associated with his gallery. There work also shows deep influences of the Impressionists, Pablo Picasso and Paul Gauguin, in form, structure and style. This is not to say that their work is in any way imitative, as it is not. A large part of their talent lies in creating synthesis that develops its own identity and stands completely alone and without apology.

Both artists are especially aware of color,  the interplay of light and shadow, and the warm and cool feelings that colors project. Pranoto looks at color in terms of emotional tones and nuances, at least in part, and uses color to create mood. Light breaks up color and molds it into abstract shapes and a variety of tonal values, he said. Pranoto’s figures often radiate auras of luminous light. His use of form and structure is bold and dramatic. For Pendergrast, since childhood she has seen colors as personalities and feelings. She likes to think of colors as if they are musical chords that she plays harmoniously or discordantly.

Although many of Pendergrast’s paintings are of nudes, she does not see them as especially erotic. Instead, she defines them as sensual, but would describe a painting of a flower in the same way. “All are sensual,” she said. “All are objects of beauty that I want to interpret in my own art sense.” In painting human models, she said, the tone of the painting often is set by the “chemistry” between artist and model, and the distinct personalities they both bring to a session. She said that “it’s perfectly valid” if someone looks at her paintings and has an erotic response to them, and stresses that art is meant to be seen and interpreted by the viewer. Oftentimes, she said, art that is intended to be erotic doesn’t strike her that way at all.

“I think it is the unseen and the unsaid that makes something erotic,” Pendergrast said.

Pranoto, age 51, has felt driven to become an artist since early childhood. He began working with batik, and moved to Bali in 1974. He opened his gallery in 1996, in order to showcase his own work and the work of friends. He switched to painting, and his work has shown considerable openness to experimentation in form, media and technique. He has worked with oils and canvas, and pastels and paper, but also has painted on sandpaper and used tinted plaster on ceramic.

Pendergrast, age 40, was born in Perth, Western Australia, and graduated in Humanities in 1986 from Curtin University. She initially pursued a career in theater and music, but a trip to Bali changed her life. She met Pranoto and moved to Bali in 1993. She has two children, manages the gallery and modeling sessions, and paints. She works most often in soft pastels on sandpaper and in watercolor on paper, and often explores rich possibilities in color transparency and the interaction of pigments.

Thus far, Pranoto has exhibited only in Indonesia, with numerous solo and group shows. He has not had formal exposure outside of his own country. Pendergrast also has exhibited mostly in Indonesia, but also has exhibited her work in her native Australia and at World Expo 2000 in Hannover, Germany. Their gallery’s web address is: Prepare for a feast.


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