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When Art Imitates Life

An art book is kind of a contradiction in terms, isn’t it? Shouldn’t images either speak for themselves or be part of a story like a comic? And really, does anyone other than art historians or art professionals, ever actually read art monographs? (For the uninitiated, a monograph is a detailed study on a single subject, for example, a single artist).

We were invited to review Entries, a monograph on contemporary painter Fendry Ekel and thought it presented a timely opportunity to make the argument for art books entering mainstream readership.

Fendry Ekel, 2013 by Armelle Bouret (c) 2017 the artist and Armelle Bouret

First, a bit of background on Fendry – born in 1971 in Jakarta, he migrated to the Netherlands as a teenager, where he studied fine art at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy and the Rijksakademie van beeldende kunsten. His practice spans both realist portraiture and conceptual work, with Entries providing well, an entry – point to his oeuvre (relax, it’s just fancy way of referring to the body of work of an artist). The essays are written by authors familiar with his practice and include, amongst others gallerists, curators, and academics.

So far, so factual.

What we really liked about the book was its (for want of a better word) crossover appeal.  It’s made up of relatively short essays and is extremely readable without dumbing down important ideas. It’s peppered with evocative images and deep art historical thought but yet manages to maintain a connection to life that infuses the essays with a great energy. As an additional bonus, the book is laid out beautifully. Graphic designers Studio Laucke Siebein of Amsterdam and Berlin have approached the volume with sensitivity and elegance, ensuring that content is presented with an engaging juxtaposition of images and art historical discourse.

Understanding Portraiture

The very first essay by Christophe Van Gerrewey Chess Problems: On the Paintings of Fendry Ekel launches right into the key conundrum of portraiture, a style of painting that Fendry is well-known for. Van Gerrewey channels Roland Barthes with the bold question: Do paintings speak a language? And if they do, what exactly do they say?

The statement goes to the heart of the question on why realistic portraiture should be valued when cameras do a perfectly fine job of capturing such images? Van Gerrewey then explains that a “painting only exists and becomes expressive when we look at and think about it ourselves,” such interaction creating a unique visual code or language, developed in the mind of the viewer.

In a similar vein, Fendry himself has mentioned that the making of portraits is like “touching an aura, a way of allowing an anonymous image to emerge.”

But really, how anonymous could a literal depiction like this be?

Investigation #9 (2013), depicting a sculpture of Indonesian General Sudirman, on a horse

Fendry explains in an interview with us, that a painting like the one above, “is anonymous because the starting point is a two-dimensional photographic image.”

He continues, “I never paint a portrait from a direct source. It is based on the visual information I receive from (a) photograph, not painted after the person himself, or herself. Anything related to the picture is the shadow of it.”

Like Fendry, the book doesn’t shy away from difficult questions and tackles them head-on. Astrid Honold’s essay 1987: Man and Memory, clearly explains the idea that “representations of a second degree” (i.e. paintings which are themselves based on photos or other pictures) allow images to be considered on different terms as the quality of representation has changed. In any event, one has only to look here, to understand that photographs while conveying the impression of objectivity, typically do anything but!

Storytelling Through Pictures

The connection between art and life is also evident in Entries, which makes for compelling reading because of the fun anecdotes that the book is peppered with. For example, take a look at this portrait of child prodigy chess champion Bobby Fischer, Thinker (2016):

The explanation of this work comes with a brief summary in Paul Mellenthin’s essay Thinker, on Fischer’s fascinating, if troubled life. We’re told that in 1972, Fischer defeated Russian world chess champion Boris Spassky in Reykjavik. Given the political tensions of the time, the match was seen as a battle of intellectual supremacy between the Cold War superpowers of the USA and USSR, culminating in Henry Kissinger “reaching out” to Fischer to “make sure” that he won the match. Fischer however, was no blind American loyalist.

In 1992, by which time he had become “completely impoverished,” he was asked to compete against Spassky again, in (what was then) Yugoslavia, in a match hosted by war criminal Jezdimir Vasiljevic. The American authorities informed Fischer that he would violate an embargo if he were to proceed and would risk a jail term upon his return to the US. Fischer responded accordingly, by spitting on the warning letter issued by the authorities at a press conference prior to the event, proclaiming, “this is my answer!”

In 2005, Fischer left the US and was eventually granted Icelandic citizenship.

Now, scroll up and take a look at the portrait again.

Do you now maybe see a sadness or bleakness? A certain defiance, or cynicism?

We loved Mellenthin’s ironic observation that “Fischer’s case shows tragically how individualism, which in theory is asserted by American culture, can break down once it is asserted.” In Fischer’s desperate fight against “all suppressive influences,” the final result was lifelong escape from America itself.

Entries presents us with another interesting fact: Did you know that Marcel Duchamp was also a talented chess player, in 1924 representing France in its national team? When Duchamp moved to New York, he maintained his connections with chess associations and at the Manhattan Chess Club, met a 12 year- old Bobby Fischer. A decade after, Duchamp chaperoned Fischer to a tournament of his in Monte Carlo. Duchamp of course famously shook up the art world in 1917 when he submitted a signed urinal to the Society of Independent Artists’ salon in New York, paving the way for readymades and their accompanying philosophical musings to be considered as “art” (details here). The Duchamp connection adds another layer of resonance to the work as Fischer’s rebellion and fierce individuality could be said to mirror Duchamp’s. Duchamp himself has maintained that he “didn’t want to pin himself down to one little circle,” thus taking up hobbies such as chess because he found some “common points between chess and painting.” Again, the connectedness between art and life shines through, when the subject of Fendry’s portraiture is considered in greater detail.

Here’s another bit of trivia that the monograph reveals, this time about Leon Trotsky: did you know that he once had a short affair with Frida Kahlo? Here’s Fendry’s portrait of Trotsky:

Leon Trotsky (2012)

The heavily stylized head of hair that Trotsky is depicted with, recalls Milton Glaser’s legendary representation of Bob Dylan  (which itself drew inspiration from Marcel Duchamp’s profile in Duchamp’s own work Self-Portrait in Profile (1959)). David Feher’s essay in the book,  Precarious Identities of the Sur/face: On Two Portraits by Fendry Ekel, refers to the idea that Duchamp’s original images in profile disrupt the idea of representation as they do not actually allow a viewer to identify the person depicted. With these layered connections, and given Fendry’s heavily- stylized portrayal of a serious and tragic Russian politician, one is left to consider whether the portrait of Trotsky can even be referred to as a portrait, given how far removed it is conceptually and figuratively from popular notions of the man.

When is an Indonesian not an Indonesian?

We also liked the way the monograph covered issues of migration and nationality. These issues surface whenever an artist’s identity is up for discussion. What for example, makes an artist “Indonesian”? The fact of citizenship? What of Dutch artists for example, who have spent large parts of their lives in Indonesia, assimilating with and embracing local culture? Should one look to the kinds of subjects portrayed in their actual artworks? Fendry, for example, has been referred to by the New York Times as a “Dutch painter.”

When asked why an ethnically Indonesian painter finds inspiration in Western subject matter, Fendry corrected us, “myself, I was born in Indonesia on one of its thousands of islands. Indonesia is a nation, not an ethnicity. This country consists of many ethnicities … a big melting pot.”

He explains:

I am first a human being, then an individual, then a person and, last, a citizen. As a person, I belong to the society where I am, and to the people I have known. As an artist, I belong to this planet. … I am always cautious about placing an artwork in a national or ethnic context. From my perspective, this context can only limit the energy that derives from the art itself.

Still, issues of migration are never far from Fendry’s practice. Untitled (1987) for example, is but a bare statement of the year in which the artist left his country of birth, for the Netherlands:

The monograph is explicit in acknowledging the influence of On Kawara in Fendry’s works which again, further contextualizes the pieces. To elaborate, these pictures of dates create a point where “abstraction and figuration start oscillating into multistable figures.” We thought this was a rather nice turn of phrase, given that the shimmering neon words embedded in black,  do look as though they could actually be humming or vibrating.

If you’re looking to explore the world of art books with an accessible, gorgeously illustrated publication, Entries could well be the tome for you.

It’s available for purchase online here and here.

P/s: If you happen to be in Yogyakarta in November, you might also want to check out Light Makes Believe, a show that Fendry is exhibiting in, together with Marco Cassani, and in collaboration with Heri Dono’s Studio Kalahan. It runs from 1 to 15 November 2017. The exhibition brings together painting and sculpture, reflecting the artists’ shared interest in light,  language, and numbers.  More details here.

(All images courtesy of the artist, unless otherwise stated) 

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