Superheroes are a recurrent theme in the work of Indonesian painter Nyoman Masriadi. These pop cultural icons, enforcers of law and order, instantly communicate a web of moral complexity. Masriadi portrays Batman and Superman in such a manner as to question our perception of the superhero. These idols entered our hearts through the small screen and carried our imaginations across the pages of a comic strip. They surmount all obstacles, defeat the antihero, and save the world, and all to public acclaim. But Masriadi takes the forms of these contemporary, mythical gods and renders them altogether human.
“Masriadi joins a new wave of arts activists reviving the tradition of socio-political commentary.”
Nyoman Masriadi, Sorry Hero, I Forgot, 2008. Acrylic on Canvas, 79 x 118 inches. Courtesy of Gajah Gallery
Nyoman Masriadi The Man From Bantul (The Final Round), 2000. Mixed media on canvas, 98 x 171 inches. Courtesy of Gajah Gallery.
Superheroes are a recurrent theme in the work of Indonesian painter Nyoman Masriadi. These pop cultural icons, enforcers of law and order, instantly communicate a web of moral complexity. Masriadi portrays Batman and Superman in such a manner as to question our perception of the superhero. These idols entered our hearts through the small screen and carried our imaginations across the pages of a comic strip. They surmount all obstacles, defeat the antihero, and save the world, and all to public acclaim. But Masriadi takes the forms of these contemporary, mythical gods and renders them altogether human. Masriadi does not achieve this by demeaning the physiques of our heroes: their costumes remain pristine; their bulging biceps are further exaggerated to a colossal scale, filing the canvas with such over-muscled weight, as to appear to be crammed into the space. Yet these effigies of childhood ideals are trapped under the burden of their thankless heroics. Vulnerably depicted with their lycra pants on the latrine, they bemoan the fact that their efforts are not appreciated.
Masriadi joins a new wave of arts activists reviving the tradition of socio-political commentary. This tradition can be traced back to Hogarth, some three hundred years ago, who chose to create prints that appealed to the middle and working class. Hogarth acted as a voice for those without franchise, whilst ruthlessly mocking the aristocracy. In artists such as Shepard Fairey, Banksy, and Masriadi, this is a tradition that is very much alive. Masriadi’s most renowned work to date is the series “The man from Bantul”, with the largest canvas from this series, “The Final Round,” sold by Sotheby’s Hong Kong in October 2008 for in excess of a million dollars. Auction success aside, this series is seminal for its narratives. Masriadi interweaves contemporary travesty across the platforms of boxing and social past-times, such as computer games. He uses motifs derived from these familiar games and contests as a guide through the contemporary issues of post-colonialism, social status, religion, cultural identity, and a loss of humanity. With this particular painting the boxing ring serves as a stage upon which his narrative unfolds. The viewer acknowledges the rules and regulations of the sport with subconscious familiarity. Within this framework Masriadi deploys caricatures, inspired by local stereotypes, bureaucratic figures, and traditional mythology. Armed with these cues, his commentary is manifested in confrontational, grotesque forms. Another painting features a broom-toting soldier of fortune. The soldier is clothed in the requisite camouflage pants, white vest, army boots, and sunglasses; he blindly brandishes the broom as though it were a machine gun.
Art historian Tabapathy explains that this is a reference to former “Indonesian Militia making a clean sweep (annihilating an entire village).” Most Indonesians are aware of the fact that within the province of Bantul lies Kusanto, birth place of Indonesian dictator, Soharto. With this in mind Masriadi’s series develops a very political theme, and its chef d’oeuvre, “The final round”, with the three, colossal, boxing giants, a visual depiction of the battle for survival. The bout takes place under the gaze of a caricatured, multinational audience, all baying for blood. The giant boxer at the center is pounded by three armed opponents, while the doll-like referee is powerless. The travesty of the repeated histories Asia and the Middle East, and their internationally invested interests, are uncomfortably depicted amongst the surrounding spectators, and within the ring, grinding under the weight of the central boxer’s blood splattered jaw.
Masriadi’s work continues to reflect on society. Paintings such as “Cross-Eyed” (2005), depicting a crowd of city workers all staring, at their mobiles, and Tragedy (2010) touting a stressed out, boss eyed, man in jeans, smoking so many cigarettes his fingers are on fire. These are the more recent observations, of a new era, with the familiar consumer paradigms of stress, anxiety, absurdity and the desire for status. Masriadi’s “Sorry Hero, I forgot” may not be imbued with the same interpretation in America as it is in Indonesia, but our conscious connections to familiar imagery continue to evoke an emotive response to his work. In this sense, Masriadi’s specific artistic intention is superseded by a social phenomenon. The work of the art activist crosses geographical and cultural borders, engaging new audiences, and stimulating new consciousness.