Antonius Kho

Tribal Art

It is always a pleasure for an art critic to see that what he has foreseen actually happens. The art critic's job is to analyze the form and content of an artwork and, based on this analysis, propose an evaluation. This is the touchy moment; the trick is to avoid passing a final judgment, lest he be mistaken. He will instead talk about theory or the history of the art, or dwell at length on its sociological or psychological context - thus avoiding any hard and fast conclusions.

Yet when I witnessed, two years ago, the evolution of Antonius Kho's work, I dared give just such an opinion. I had watched him struggle for years in search of the manner that would best suit his psychological penchant. He tried, that is to say he hesitated. And then, all of a sudden, he seemed to have found it. And I affirmed it: He was moving ahead with definitive new confidence. All the tension he had experienced, which had previously blocked him, was now turning into a cosmic fusion of sorts: his paintings, until then a rigid mosaic of human faces, now surged forth as a whirling color structure of obsessive human eyes.

Having already foreseen these portents of budding, I am all the more at ease today in risking a judgment on the most recent works the artist is exhibiting at Wina gallery, Ubud.

Antonius Kho is not exhibiting any paintings this time. Although he still paints, he has decided to present what has become his new calling, sculpture. This shift to sculpture is indeed part of the transformation I had witnessed, when it was still its early stages. He began creating wooden works as extensions of his painting: he replaced ordinary canvases with several small, sometimes protruding wooden squares on which he then painted human faces in his traditional, angst-ridden fashion. This added a third dimension to the works, but the technique was still that of painting. Then, sometime in 2004, this changed: he wanted to give more flesh to his works, and he wanted them to be more optimistic. Less angst and love- a mirror,perhaps,of developments in his private life. So he tried sculpture.

He found in the village of Mas a craftsman who could rough out the wood surfaces he wanted to work on. Given detailed drawings, this woodcarver could directly translate Antonius' ideas into volume. The artist had only to correct, add expressive details, and paint the sculpture thus obtained.

It is the results of this leap into sculpture that Antonius Kho exhibiting at Wina Gallery. What to say about these works? At times indeed one feels that the artist is not a born sculptor, that many of the works obviously derive from a two - dimensional representation. The mind-set of the artist, as a trained painter, doesn't help him to think of his sculpture as a "ronde bosse" - that is, as an artwork to be equally seen and appreciated from all sides. Thus several of these sculptures are mid - way between sculpture "in the round" and relief. Another secondary feature, also perhaps owing to the two - dimensional character I have just underlined, is that these sculptures, although made of wood, do not have the physical quality usually associated with this material: they lack the natural "feel" of wood that makes one want to caress it.

Yet, one might say that it is precisely because they are not ordinary wooden sculptures that Antonius' wooden pieces are so interesting. Sculptures are meant to speak. That the artist does not follow the usual pattern corresponding to the classical definition of sculpture is no disadvantage. It is yet another example of the weakening differentiation between genres and media.

What Antonius "discovery" of wood enables him to do is to more fully explore the themes that haunt him: love - and hence the basic hermaphrodite or dual nature of men and women's feeling of love; fertility and the quest for the real nature of the self. Several of the smaller works are light - hearted and funny, a departure from the artist's typically serious mood. The way these themes are treated is unambiguous. The figures are all "round" simplified to make the message they embody immediately accessible to any viewer. Particularly interesting is the artist's treatment of "sex". Some people will find it daring, but a closer look easily reveals that the representations of the sexual organs in these works don't in fact relate to the sexual act, but rather to the function of reproduction, and its association to the idea of cosmic Oneness.

The styles of the works immediately exposes the cosmopolitan culture of the artist. Born in Java, he spent much of his youth in Germany, where he pursued a successful career as a painter. He moved back to Indonesia around ten years ago. His debt to the "outside" world is visible in both his style and his technique. This is clearly the work of a man who has thoroughly studied the principles of modern art, but also has a strong fascination for the easily accessible symbolism of African and Pacific art. As in these so - called "primitive" traditions, the details do not matter. What does matter is the power of the symbols.

How to assess the path Antonius has taken? He has effectively become a sculptor: he expresses some of the themes that obsess him much more easily than he did as a painter. Works like "Reborn I" and "Reborn II" are strongly suggestive of the universal principles of love and life that the artist is defending. He should therefore continue his exploration of wood in this direction. By doing so, he may also discover new ways to combine painting and sculpture. Considering what he has achieved in such a short period of time, Antonius may well turn out to be a significant a sculptor as he is a painter. He already has the message. It is in the further exploration of his medium that his future blossoming probably lies.

For the time being, a glance suffices to disclose the artist's intent. Sexual organs as parts of the language of life; bodies embracing each other; men and women looking at one another in the thralls of passion. Antonius Kho has found a way to the heart through simple themes and economy of means. Let us enjoy this newfound simplicity the flowering of a long, deep-rooted quest.

Jean Couteau
Copyright © 2004, Antonius Kho