Sophisticated, meticulous, vibrant and gorgeous – Balinese artist I Nyoman Wirdana’s paintings are a celebration of colour and joy. Within the sphere of Balinese painting, he has forged a distinct path with an artistic ‘voice’ that is immediately recognisable as his own. His pictures recount the mythical and mystical, drawing inspiration from the cosmos and nature they are a fusion of styles while being uniquely Balinese.
I vividly recall the day I stumbled upon Wirdana’s paintings in Ubud, about ten years ago. All the colours of the rainbow magically came to life before my eyes in The Dance of Shiva, a pulsating depiction of the Hindu god Shiva within a cosmic wheel of geometry and encircled in a delightful array of decorative motifs. I was awestruck and wondered, after years of living in Ubud, why it had taken me so long to discover the talent of this alchemist with a command over a powerful visual formula that casts spells upon those who open their senses and intimately engage with his works.
Purple forms interacted with orange hues, greens contrasted with reds, blue and yellows in opposition and conflicting relationships. Energised with a dynamic visual tension, the composition was shining with an underlying grace. Understanding colour theory and the association upon the subconscious mind was the primary instrument of Wirdana’s methodology. Symbolism and geometry – the strength of the graphic line within precise mathematical proportions, was another tool used to seduce my awareness.
While Shiva’s trance-like gaze was seductive, his four arms are arranged in an array of divine gestures with sacred symbols held within his grasp. Poised as if gently standing upon a reclining baby Krishna, sentinel guardians are positioned to his left and right. Delicate symmetrical designs enshrined the majestic Shiva, ‘The Destroyer’ within the Hindu holy trinity including Brahma and Vishnu. Wirdana opened my mind’s eye in dream of the celestial in a splendour that was far beyond my imaginings.
Other elements of Wirdana’s picture were noteworthy. A plethora of other deities on the circumference surrounds Shiva enhancing the circular flowing motion of the composition that leads the eye from the outer to the inner visual field. White and gold dots and circles – stars and planets – cover the outer plane of the picture, sparkling diamonds within an ocean of colour grandeur. The image is framed by a white border of repetitive motifs, lotus flowers and the Aum chakra symbol, all in sculpted in 3-dimensional painted forms objectifying and projecting and the focal composition outward.
Animals from the Balinese scriptures playing lead roles within the compositions characterise Wirdana’s other works. Deer, elephants and swans even from out of left field, the mythical unicorn. In Borobudur Awakens Amidst Fireflies (2014-2016) Wirdana selects a Buddhist narrative while including architectural design motifs from the ancient structure. Works are sometimes created in pairs – that according to the artist must remain side-by-side, Tree of Enlightenment, Deer Park I & II (2013 – 2014) and Somewhere Over the Rainbow I & II (2018). His earlier works dominated by overlapping colours, and cubist inspired forms such as in Ganesha Samsara 2011 that suggest the surreal otherworldly atmosphere that is alive in Bali, where the veil between unseen and seen is thin. Wirdana adheres to prerequisites that define a Balinese painter, all space within the canvas is fully occupied, densely packed detail with repetition of patterns and forms. The aesthetics are dominated by line, narrative, figuration and flatness without the depth of field.
The intricate surfaces of Wirdana’s paintings demand our close inspection and texture plays an essential role. His ‘landscape’ of finely tuned valleys and peaks are constructed by layering oil paint in defined dots, strokes and rhythms across the canvas. He adopts the pointillism painting method to achieve this goal. These textual points function correctly under-designed lighting. The peaks cast tiny shadows into the valleys, the colour highlights, often accentuated by sparkling or bright colours become a distinct visual feature. In contrast, the darkness of the valley emphasises the overall aesthetic impact.
Linear patterns within the texture create visual rhythms encouraging the eye to traverse the composition in swirling and pulsating motions. Wirdana’s paint layering is a pain-staking process one painting taking the artist about 18 months to complete. “My technique has constantly been evolving, and is the outcome of my years of observation while mixing and developing my style,” Wirdana stated. “My basic knowledge comes from the understanding of Impressionism, yet I describe my technique as being all about flow.”
“The impact of Cubism is apparent in my earlier paintings, along with Chinese Feng Sui and Art Deco influences that have evolved within Balinese painting. My technique is time-consuming, I work slowly, and this is my conscious methodology. The layering is a step-by-step process that requires the certain distinct depths of colour,” said the artist who has exhibited in group and solo shows in Bali, Java and France.
“I have a systematic, calculated approach and plan out each work with a grid system before I begin. Much of the composition, about 60% I can foretell the outcome. The other 40% is more a spontaneous response during the work’s progression, allowing me to enhance the aesthetic dynamics. My objective is to strive for the very best to achieve the highest outcomes in accordance with my capabilities.”
The quietly spoken painter resides in a small studio in Ubud, nearby to the family compound of the famous painter Ida Bagus Made Poleng (1915 – 1999). Wirdana relocated to Ubud in 1998 so he could immerse himself in the renowned international creative epicentre and to learn to paint from the many local traditional, modern and contemporary artists. In 1996, however, Wirdana ventured to Bogor and studied with Retno Tri Joko in West Java for two years. While in Ubud he learned from with the artist Sugito. Both of these teachers were students of the famous Indonesian realist painter, Dullah (1919-1996) who was close to Sukarno, the first President of the Republic of Indonesia and was appointed to care over the President’s art possessions and as the curator of the state painting collection. He also studied life drawing with Pranoto in Ubud for many years.
In the Balinese painting tradition, the sacred Classical narrative pictures displayed within the temples, shrines and the abodes of the aristocracy are strictly codified. Artists function as a mediator between the worlds of the visual and the unseen, deciphering the esoteric into practical a language for the everyday world. Wirdana’s mission is the same.
An enigma, he was born in Tejekula in 1976 on the north coast of Bali. Yet, despite the fact that Wirdana’s The Dance of Shiva is in the permanent collection of the Neka Art Museum in Ubud, his gifts are yet to be fully detected by the art market radar in Indonesia. His move to join One East Asia, Singapore, is his first significant step to get the recognition he deserves.
Words: Richard Horstman
Images courtesy of Nyoman Wirdana