Haris Purnomo at COCA, Seattle
Thomas S. Lamprecht

Haris Purnomo’s recent show at the COCA Seattle was a combination of paintings and sculptures from Purnomo’s most recent series. The work’s visual language employs images of tattooed or cocooned babies. Through this imagery Purnomo seemingly aims at addressing a number of social and aesthetic issues that are potentially complex and poignant.

The work is executed in a precise, calligraphic style that connects easily to the traditionally popular and historically characteristic qualities of art prevalent in the culture Purnomo comes from. The carefully nuanced, photorealistic images of naked babies with dragon and fire tattoos evoke a range of discordant references from old people and hipsters to skinheads, Maori warriors and Hells Angels. The babies float, fly or cluster in soft bundles full of little arms, legs, bottoms and bellies. They sleep, they gaze, they notice. Together they strive to viscerally seduce and create combined feelings of playful discomfort and whimsy. The monochromatic colors of the paintings and the careful avoidance of any gestural or brush stroke evidence underline the delicate, effeminate quality so prized by Indonesian cultural aesthetics. Yet the tattooed, delicate babies’ bodies hint at pain as well.

Purnomo is not at home with pain and discomfort. He is clearly a traditionalist in love with his craft. He is more familiar and comfortable with politeness and mild-manner humor. But he also has some other underlying ambitions. To that extent Purnomo seeks to find the balance between the Louis K. Meisel type of hyper-realistic obsession—where creating the virtuosic, saccharin infused photographic images with paint and brush is the aim in itself—and an extended conceptual function of an image.

Purnamo’s babies correspond to that deep traditional value of politeness which works all the better when manifested with cuteness and sweetness. He loves and talks about them as the key for a successful future of humanity. The babies have, of course, an important spiritual connection with animistic and Hindu beliefs that extend influences throughout Javanese, Islamic and other Indonesian cultures that often regard them as deities. They represent sentient beings still connected to the divine and not progressively distanced from the gods through the corruption of maturity. (In several Indonesian cultures babies are not even allowed to touch the ground, where demons dwell, until they are at least six months old.) Purnomo’s babies exemplify those deities in more ways than one. Their expressions are not only cute. They are dead-pan knowing, detached or inquisitive. They are baby Garudas, Vishnus, Shivas. They are Indonesian generals and Buddhas in one.

This is where Purnomo’s ambition takes his imagery into another territory. He aspires to play with politics and power. In some cases this is done subtly, in others less so. The large size of his paintings and huge baby bodies are aggressive in their massive volume. The somewhat predictable effect of juxtaposing violent images of dragons and flames tattooed with the implicit violence that comes from etching them on delicate baby skin, is but one way Purnomo tries to create that tension. It is a tightly manipulated tension to the extent that it becomes both self conscious and decorative. Purnomo catches himself trying and not being able to live up to his hope of profound juxtaposition. The babies very quickly become illustrations. Purnomo wants to position them on the edge of decorative aesthetic and profanity. He knows enough about art to want to drive his imagery onto a deeper level other than marginal aesthetic, perfunctory interest or shock.

The way he attempts to mitigate that ambition is by playing with the suggestion of violence and irony. It is a noble pursuit that takes a darker, sardonic view of the manipulations and politics of power. One baby in the series sports a knife tucked behind its ear like a pencil temporarily stowed, as if in between tasks. However, this more edgy vocabulary is still overridden by concern for offence. The baby has an endearing expression of curiosity on its face. The kind that makes people fall into baby talk. The knife could be stuck there by a playful adult. The image is more cute than telling. It ends up appearing mildly humorous and the implied threat dissolves. The distant echoes of memories of Suharto’s Jakarta genocide never balance the decorative cuteness and detachment of polite craftsmanship. The shrewdness and cold brutality within a peaceful and non-violent society never really comes to the fore.

The babies’ most successful expressions are not the ones that the COCA audiences seemed to examine more closely. They are not the most obvious. Some of them are not really planned in the black-pupil deadness of their staring eyes. As in many examples of successful art making, Purnomo’s best quality comes not from being in full control. In those instances there is a promise and possibility of magic. The predictable, chintzy and lackluster recedes a bit.

It could be argued that the installation of Purnomo’s sculptures came closer to the objective of his vision. Shown in two separate COCA locations in Seattle, the clusters of hanging white plastic-mold, cocoon-wrapped, life-size sleeping babies are accentuated by pointed metal daggers protruding like stings from the bottom. They connected more easily with the threat of violence, and the dichotomy—or coexistence—of peaceful innocence and crude aggression. They are clearer in articulating their connection to the idea that the devil and God are, after all, one and the same. Like great Imams of Islam or Shiva, The Destroyer of the Hindu trinity, they aim to command reverence and fear.

In a way, the more direct function of the sculptures is not surprising. Purnomo is clearly not as much in love with or at home with three dimensional object making and gravity, as he is with his meditative, high-craft painting. The fact that COCA’s space did not allow for the installation to be too carefully displayed or arranged, also helped, however unintentionally. The industrially cast molded plastic material may be just a step removed from Purnomo’s preoccupation with perfectionist virtuosity and fastidiousness, but it’s enough. The process, at least, is not peaceful and it can be messy.

The installation of the cocooned, stiletto-bottom babies suspended in mid-air seemed almost like a clarifying statement for the paintings in the show. This is not to say that it didn’t retain some of the similar qualities of the overly cordial insecurity. However, it did force a different element; that of the art being put in another context and vernacular. Purnomo’s personal attachments and manner had to give way at least in part to less ingrained sensibility. Something more general occurred. This may not have made the installation stronger in itself, however, it allowed for another angle that could be seen as less monolithic. The contemporary art world fashions and competitive art awareness slid to the surface. Consequently it had to be considered in that context, although, as such it made a minor impact.

When it works, the overall strength of Purnomo’s artwork resides in creating a platform for unresolved whimsy. It falls short of being a punch line, a conclusion, and keeps the question hanging. In the end, the wondering travels the viewer tends to go through are not deeply visceral or profound. They do, however, aspire to intellectual intensity. It is about how close to those intensities Purnomo is able to get himself and then pitch it to the viewer. However politely.



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