Just as there are life-changing events in one’s personal life such as marriage or the birth of a first child, so there are milestones in an artist’s career that define him — a solo exhibition or a sojourn abroad. For Bayu, there has been a rapid succession of these pivotal experiences and this exhibition Mind The Gap: From K.L. to London … and back is a significant one for him because it holds the full weight of these recent developments in his life.
Bayu has always made a conscious effort to pull himself away from the security of his earlier bodies of work but to those familiar with his work, there always remains a common ingredient of visual thought that is definitively and identifiably Bayu Utomo. In fact, the title of the exhibition hints at a cycle of regeneration and the paintings echo with traces of his earlier works from the ideas of uprootedness and dislocation in the Bujang Berani and Lang Kacang sculptures to the use of identifiable Malay pictorial language in the Mencari Pahlawan series.
Although he has undoubtedly etched a name for himself in Malaysian art history, Bayu still retains a sense of humble doubt about the impact that each new series of work makes on his artistic oeuvre as well as the arts community around him. Perhaps it is this vulnerability at the core of himself and his artworks that draws people towards his work. The image of a young man clad in tengkolok and sampin gazing thoughtfully at a stalk of iris blossom, a young boy with an unwieldy gas mask protected from poisonous fumes but not from the shrapnel of prejudiced thought, Bayu’s artworks are never one-sided and extreme even though they may be controversial.
From his student days, Bayu has had a reputation for being non-conformist in his choice of subject matter despite his undoubted commercial success and his succession of exhibitions in institutions and established galleries. Perhaps it is because he faces such weighty issues with a philosophical turn, this coupled together with the beauty of his painterly expression ensure that appreciators of art, collectors, institutions and fellow artists find his work a pleasure to encounter. Yet Bayu is aware that his marketability can turn into a double-edge sword if he is viewed as someone tackling fashionable issues and that his aesthetic style and conceptual approach can easily become a suffocating cocoon of familiarity.
Each series of work is a vessel for the debates and questions that are uncovered in that current phase of the artist’s life but their exceptionality lies in their ability to hold different meanings for different people. Just as he paints from photographs and sketches rather than memories, there is a filter with a viewer kept in mind so as to attain a common visual code of communication. The artist said in conversation with me last December that ‘a painting is a part of me but I don’t want the painting to present me to the audience’. This desire for a degree of separation could be interpreted in many ways — as a mature distancing that does not dictate to the viewer, an intentional screen that leads to a restriction of the artist’s full potential for expression or that these intimate thoughts are mediated to retain a widespread appeal and accessibility.
The astute selection and usage of markers — words, sights and symbols — laden with visual and cognitive significance is arguably one of Bayu’s most powerful artistic strengths. He has a perceptive ability to zero in on images and deposit them within a context that empowers them with a fervent strength — the symbol for the London Underground leads to a journey deep within the recesses of the mind or the depiction of a falling autumn leaf evokes the seasonal fortunes of life and love.
The London Series has an element of touristy voyeurism, one can imagine Bayu devouring these famous sights in the flesh for his depictions resonate with the splendour and glory of Western civilisation and culture. The Acropolis. The Trevi Fountain. The London Underground. Hamlet. Macbeth. Romeo. Words and names that are bastions of Western thought and achievement, which strike a chord in this Malaysian artist travelling abroad. Ah, if only KLCC, P. Ramlee, The LRT, Genting Highlands and Putrajaya held global standings of such majesty. But there is no monument envy here, Bayu instead records a sense of awe as to the infinite possibilities of creativity that man is able to bring to fruition and correspondingly, how negligible an individual’s existence and emotions can be in the greater scheme of history and the making of it.
These monuments to achievement become entry points but rather than using them as tools to merely arouse pre-conceptions in the viewer, Bayu uses them with vested self-interest. They become points of comparison and departure, personal monuments on canvas to represent this particular period in his life when he purposefully removed himself from the ease of instilled certainties. Upon removing himself from the security of his habitual surroundings and assuming the status of an outsider in a foreign land, Bayu became concerned once again with notions of identity, a theme that he has explored in many guises thoughout his years of practice — the marginalisation of certain sectors of society, the concept of belonging and whether belonging in itself is a positive benefit or merely a bond.
Whilst before he stood in the secure vantage point of an outsider surveying others, by going to London he deliberately placed himself in an alienating position. His own experience that followed of the divide between ‘us’ and the ‘other’, the comprehension and compromise needed when venturing into the foreign and unknown led to repercussions on Bayu as an individual, as an artist and on the artworks themselves. A realisation emerged that although physical belonging deepens selfhood and comforts one with a sense of welcome and connection, there simultaneously and stealthily emerges a binding and blinding constraint that suffocates new thoughts and sensations.
Upon his immediate return to K.L, Bayu declared the need to start afresh and use his time in London as an opportunity to cut off the ties of earlier ideas and aesthetic associations. This can be seen in some of the paintings of the K.L. Series where he uses the painterly devices of brushstrokes and colour to manifest impressions of space and separation. It is in these particular works of art that the artist’s interests in the theatre can be seen, paralleling the lighting of a set and the backdrop of the stage, Bayu features himself as the principal supporting actor in a performance that is his painting. It is significant that here, as in the rest of the paintings in this body of work, Bayu offers just a partial glimpse of himself —covering and yet uncovering. The desire to avoid the viewer’s facile surrender to surface interpretations and face value is paramount. This deliberate avoidance of confrontation also underlines the artist’s intentions not to speak directly to the audience, hence preventing the subject of his art being reduced to a static question or theme sterilely immortalised in dry paint.
Bayu’s latest paintings of work in the Tanpa Tajuk paintings evoke a bittersweet melancholy. He is not clad in any garb that defines him nor set in an environment that strongly determines him. Instead, the work hints at his earlier foray into abstraction with their explosions of colour coupled with languid dribbles of paint. To some, these paintings may see somewhat bare in their pared down composition, honed focus on the figure of Bayu and his correlations with texture and colour. He strips away the distractions of juxtaposition and complex compositions, reducing and fine-tuning his paintings into the elemental so that they become functional rather than decorative, elucidating in a short sharp declaration his connection with the art he creates. These, more than any other paintings in this body of work, are statement works of art. They are unadulterated and pure, unfettered by a categorical title, screens of words or impositions of imported ingredients that can lead the viewer astray.
But as always with Bayu, it is never a simple answer of black or white. Just when we are impudent enough to have taken the liberty of inspecting and filing him neatly away, he reinvents and reasserts himself. Getting back into the groove of K.L. but with a cosmopolitan edge, he picks up familiar aesthetic devices to express himself. Nevertheless, as always with Bayu, he purposefully does not fulfil our presumptuous expectations. There is a reappearance of text, running like gossamer threads across the surface of the canvas but this time, these silk-screened Malay words are not set in any particular construct or meaning, they are a series of random words associated with emotion. Neither determinants nor directives, the words are there because of their significance as markers of communication, props to call the viewer’s attention to the weight that we too often attach to a subtle gesture, a spoken word or a scribbled sentence, or indeed the reading of a painting. While these paintings hark back to a certain extent the intentional barrenness of the paintings before, now there is an ebbing away of the melancholy that often pervades his paintings and surprise, surprise, in Membayangi and Dibayangi Bayu is caught with the cheeky grin he often wears in real life but rarely in his self-portraits.
The title of this exhibition Mind The Gap: From K.L. to London … and back is so very apt because it elucidates the linkage between each series of Bayu’s work. There is never a cycle of completion that completes itself and stands solitary, instead Bayu’s paintings are a constant referral and redefinition of aesthetic devices and concepts that metamorphose like a living organism. From the abstract paintings in his youth that articulate without the need for words or shapes to his provocative installations that hammer away at the shell of the status quo, these artistic articulations become embedded in the fibre, whether subtly or obviously, of Bayu’s artworks. In this series, as with the extensive body of work that Bayu has built up throughout his career, it is not all about impressing a particular lesson upon the viewer of what he has learnt in his European experience or his return home, but it is about the value we weigh our perceptions with and how these values as well our perceptions must remain fluid.