Whitehot Magazine

Elang Sutajaya’s Storytelling Scenographies

Genis Una Sumus, 2022. Acrylic, 80 x 80 cm.

By EKIN ERKAN, March 2023

The contemporary artist Elang Sutajaya (b. 1987), an Indonesian painter hailing from Jakarta, is a visual storyteller. Sutajaya’s stories, fantastical and prismatic, netted into canvases rife with recurrent anthropomorphic rabbit aviators, are playful—cherry-dipped sweets. They melt but, first and foremost—wittingly or not—they inherit many traditions: pop art, hyperrealism, and above all, an age-old narrative tradition. This last one, which may at first glance seem far away given the stylistic rift, is worth due consideration. 

The history of visual art, and at that even its prehistory, is interwoven with storytelling. To some degree, storytelling—i.e., the narrative—is the lifeblood, the plexus, and engine of visual art from its conception. The untrained hands that darted the Cave of Altamira (where most all Art History erudition begins, alongside the contested “Venus of Willendorf”) projected rugged, uneven stones into the shape of a canvas, man’s hunt of beasts unspooling: frame by frame, the stilted scenes of what would eventually be called cinema. The anthropologist Andrei Leroi-Gourhan described this process of making memories permanent by underscoring the operational synergy of tool-use where the gesture presupposes the existence of a memory in which a behavior program is stored. As long ago as 30,000 BC, our ancestors of the Late Paleolithic era saw the act of drawing-cum-painting as a means of chronologizing the stories and travails of their day-to-day. This was an autobiographical act, one of making-exterior our memories; one that precedes the grammatically formed and collectively uttered-and-received linguistic speech acts that oral storytelling would intercept thousands of years later. This inherent vim to project memories as stories seems, at pains of universalism, at least intuitively of a piece with our representational armory—for to tell a story to all who would have the patience to receive it, regardless of linguistic or cultural barriers, requires pointing out to the world of perpetually tangible objects, events, and actions. It requires plucking them and molding them into scenes. Thus, scenography is born from its representational baptism.

This storytelling tradition arguably reached its apotheosis when oral tales, often colored by theological reverie, were handed down and transmogrified in the tradition of Italian and German Renaissance art. Soon, they were tamed into a secular spirit, relieving and reliving fantasies rather than striking obedience or sublimity. Granted, such storytelling still inescapably veered towards the exaltation of beauty and at others, moral lessons, both being art historical concern spanning geography and history; this is the beating heart of all of, to take a case example, Cranach’s Judgment of Paris paintings (ca. 1528), of which he painted twelve. The tale, originally told by the Greeks and then retold by the Romans, was famously interpreted by the humanist Reformists of 16th century Wittenberg. In the case of Cranach’s painting, Juno/Hera, Minerva/Athena, and Venus/Aphrodite take the centerstage as a triad whilst a sleeping Paris donned in Germanic armor is tucked to the lower left of the canvas. The scene is at times bereft of the apple-orb that Eris/Discordia throws into the wedding audience, as characterizes the Greco-Roman telling; its absence in a 1528 depiction is notable, considering that Cranach imputes most of his near-dozen renderings of the Judgment scenes with it, sometimes using a glass orb in its place. In the 1528 rendering, the goddesses, whose trompe l'oeil gazes follow the viewer, seduce us with their penetrative glares; this is a modernization in style and technique. Then there is the modernization of garb, Paris donned in the epoch’s Germanic armor. We are here far from the craggy outlines of hunters trailing a buffalo as dotted the cave walls of Altamira. Similarly, Cranach’s thematic concerns are unique for their sundry source material, interpretatively drawing from literature of the day (specifically, that of Conrad Celtis qua Guido delle Colonne) in yet another act of appropriation. 

My Life is a party, 2023. Acrylic on canvas, 80 x 120 cm.

Today, following the myriad movements of 20th century abstractions ranging from Abstract Expressionism, post-painterly abstraction, hard-edge painting and op-art, the lesson of narrative may be considered of lesser relevance. And although it may be a phenomenological tale of the emotive stripe that Pollock’s Pasiphaë (1943), fitted with a maelstrom of animistic vagaries and a repository of darting swirls, speaks to, the narrative is not one that we can discernibly bridge to the world of recognizable figures and events. There is, however, a completely disparate stripe that, in the twentieth century, came to reject the whims of abstraction; this strand reached its zenith in what French critic Michel Ragon dubbed the “New Figuration” of David Hockney and Leon Golub. Photorealists like the early Gerhard Richter and Don Eddy drew figuration to its greatest extremes, wielding dexterity and skill in all manners of dichotomies: figure/ground, color/line, and perspective/foreground, to say nothing of representational veracity. Hockney, Golub, Richter and Eddy’s paintings all suggested tales, readily a part of that aforementioned genealogy that stretches back to the adumbrated Spanish caves.

Hyperrealist painters like Marilyn Minter drew the lessons of realism into Baudrillardian territory: the digital simulacra of the late 20th century, polished and glistening, were now to take the place of lips, smiles and ears; fashion advertising and polyester resins—convincing detail marked by an otherworldliness all festooned to a world of storytelling that, like Cranach's, were beyond our world but nevertheless told us something fundamental of the temporal situatedness of the human condition.

Sutajaya, too, is a part of this tradition. His work and its utilizing the recognizable motif of a beady-eyed, sprightly rabbit, similarly, I maintain, has to be considered along lines of this genealogy. There are other predecessors, too, whom we must regard. One cannot talk about Sutajaya’s eyes without first considering Margaret Keane's, whose charming "big eye" paintings (sometimes dubbed "Keane eyes") were sticky-sweet; some dubbed them "middlebrow", "kitschy", and “ironic,” all terms posited by critics who maintain that visual art should be far from recognizable stories of the people (considered, of course, hyper-stylistically) and for the people. Warhol rejected such emphatics, as did his chief theorizer, Arthur Danto, and we should consider following in their steps. It is true, Sutajaya's work makes no pretensions: there are no allusions to Jungian psychoanalysis a la Pollock nor existential reverie vide Giacometti. These are not emaciated rabbits, they are joyous, kindred spirits to the stories of Miyazaki and other animators proffering an art of storytelling for generalists. But it should be underscored that Sutajaya is an extremely adept painter. 

In one work, four fawn ducklings, centered by their full-plumed mother, center a road—their individual feathers are painted with great meticulousness, and this is but just a fraction of the picture-plane. Behind them, what resembles an old Mini Morris, its yellow that of the duckling, gleams and reflects strobes of sunshine as it veers along a curved road. A purple rabbit stares at us (or is it the opposing traffic?) head-on; the motif of the rabbit, drafted into a convention, is one that Sutajaya is undoubtedly well aware of. It is here repeated in the two balloons—one verdant green, matching the imposing, billowing tufts of grass-mottled hills behind the car—and the other a deep ocean-blue; a third teal rabbit-shaped balloon buoys above a bouquet arrangement of carnivalesque balloons. The anthropomorphizing of the balloons and the rabbits, who steer and swerve, is in keeping with the aforementioned animation storytelling. A gargantuan plum rabbit sits on a sofa tethered to the car, two straps buckling it to the roof; the edges of their bulging eyes are covered with aviator goggles, streaks of sun bouncing off the glass. The goggles and eyes are painted with a kind of sensitive mastery that the photorealists, at their best, wielded; the fantasy, however, is of hyperrealist stripe.

Swim With Friends, 2022. Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 80 cm.

Other works like Tribute to Narcissus of Caravaggio, make playful art historical references, positing the hare in place of Caravaggio’s adolescent page, famously pooled in a chiaroscuro of Stygian adumbration. With Caravaggio famous late 17th century Baroque painting by, flickers of a bleeding, beading coast are the only suggestion of natural lighting; in Other Criteria, Steinberg muses that: 

It is said by healthful pagans that there is no living the good life without pride of body: That pride had been restored to Western man when the Renaissance (some would say the High Gothic) sculptors recovered the classical form and posited man as self-centered and self-motivated, and equipped for life in freedom and efficiency. Thereafter, Narcissus gazed continually into the mirror of his art—till he lost faith in the image. Turning from reflection to introspection, he came to doubt whether it was truly he that was being reflected, whether some less silvered surface might not yield a truer portrait, and whether even that would be worth looking at. By the time this century came around, the Narcissus in our art had grown cold to the charm of its own figure. The great critic, Roger Fry, once tried to account for the superiority of African statues over Western figure sculpture by pointing out that, since the human body is shaped much like a starfish, no realistic rendering of it can hope to come to a good end. And a famous modern sculptor complained of the gratuitous tyranny which requires an artist to put exactly two eyes in a face when perhaps the rhythm of the piece would be much better served by one or three. Gradually the human figure drained out of Western art. Its symmetry had grown uninteresting, its vaunted beauty had become an irritant, and its alleged autonomy, a mockery. 

The human, today too, has grown wilted; if its place is revived in art, it is questionable whether anything exciting let along novel can be done with it. This need not require discarding the human altogether, but it also opens up the aperture to precisely the stripe of playful anthropomorphizing Sutajaya is interested in. Even worse yet is the state of the spectatorship of the fine arts, so often reduced to a collection of Instagram decorative tokens, fine-honed for collecting “likes.” This future was predictable—so much so that artist-performers like Andrea Fraser readily and cheekily bemoaned it in 1989 and critics like Guy Debord (and a foretokening Feuerbach) wrote of its imminence. Why, then, not sport a genuinely publicly enjoyable and palpably pop art practice? 

A number of other contemporary artists including Javier Calleja, Mab Graves, Mark Ryden and Marion Peck are descendants of contemporary visual storytelling. These artists, each in their own mode, play with iconography and proffer recognizable motifs, as Sutajaya’s aviator rabbits do. But Sutajaya’s works subsist as frames selected from ongoing scenographies that leave viewers to imagine the architecture of what is to come. This, alongside the level of prudent detail, discerns Sutajaya’s adeptness as a storyteller, connecting him to the bards of yore. One of Sutajaya's smaller pieces, Talking to the Moon(2022; 31⅜ x 23½ in), recently sold at Sotheby’s for 15,000 USD—the first piece of his to be auctioned. Insofar as art market trends go, this signifies a significant impressive upward trajectory. His works are coveted by collectors, which is sure to only burgeon, and he has many forthcoming solo shows, including at OVO Gallery (January 2023; Taipei), Streams Gallery (January 2023; Hong Kong), Caelis Gallery (May 2023; Shanghai), Villazan Gallery (July 2023; Madrid), and Guy Hepner (August 2023; New York). WM

Ekin Erkan

Ekin Erkan is a writer, researcher, and instructor in New York City.

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