Nice party. Beautiful people. Harrowing canvasses. Clearly, this ain’t no fooling around, even if it did take place in Bali, the ultimate island for fooling around, art-wise and otherwise. But a wonderland, Bali is not. A rabbit hole to wonderland, this exhibition is not. We are at Biasa Artspace, Bali’s pre-eminent, credibly independent, contemporary art gallery. November 21. It’s a vernissage for the disturbingly beautiful and beautifully disturbing recent oeuvre of Bali-based painter Edmondo Zanolini (AKA Mondo), entitled “Follow the Rabbit”.
Shades of Lewis Carrolls’s rabbit? Perhaps. But this is no recreational trip into a whimsically altered state, it is a harrowing one into a raw state of naked awareness, and certainly not a wonderland by any stretch of any addled imagination. It is more Helter-Skelter than Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. Stop dreaming, says Mondo. Wonderland and the House of Horrors are one and the same. Drop the dreams and wake up. The antidote to dreams is down this rabbit hole, so follow the rabbit, if you dare. Reality is weirder than dreams ever could be.
The palette is strictly propagandist red-black-white, conveying a sense of urgency and non-negotiability. The canvasses are mostly large, the narratives literal, graphic, and although the figures are merely silhouettes, they are starkly legible in the same way Balinese shadow puppet gods and demons writhing on a screen at a temple ceremony are starkly legible. In the same way a snapshot of a hooded Iraqi torture victim is starkly legible. That is to say, these images are iconic, relentlessly in your face, and they burn themselves indelibly into memory as shadow puppet gods and demons brand themselves onto the retina in the crepuscular yet dazzling light of oil lamps blazing against a stretched canvas screen, late at night in Bali’s wayang kulit shadow plays.
The curator of this show, Valentine Willie, is a local hero of sorts, (that’s him, above right, next to Mondo holding satay stick). Willie has a certain clout around these parts, and can surely coax and cajole artists as effectively as he can collectors and institutions. The question that begs asking then, is does size matter? And is canvas size in this exhibition down to Willie, or to Mondo? Bear in mind that Mondo’s late spouse was one of the most bankable painters to come out of Bali in decades, and this bankability cannot escape the attention of any gallery owner, art investor or curator, nor should it. In Willie’s position it would be impossible not to ask, “Can the shadow cast by an artist on her surviving spouse have value in artistic and market terms?” No one looking at this shadow play could possibly avoid such a question. Is the answer to be found in large works, marketable works, engineered exhibitions? Or in leaving the artist entirely alone and accepting what comes, or not?
In this show, Mondo’s large works evidence a certain conflict, a reticence to go that big, and are therefore imbued with a palpable tension, perhaps a resistance to exposing matters so minutely intimate on such a large scale. Mondo bears a message of visceral integrity and has his own ways and means, but do we really need it so big? One cannot help but think that someone was involved here, someone adept at calculating the scale of the home and office spaces occupied by art aquisitors in this region, and the local price per square meter for finished paintings. Still, authentic disclosure does not require a billboard in order to be transmitted with fidelity. Mondo’s “Rabbit” works can be scaled up or down and the fidelity remains. One yearns for miniatures, for pocket sized “Rabbit” works to contemplate. Marketable? Maybe. Smart Cars are marketable.
Upstairs at Biasa Artspace, relegated to the back of beyond, are Mondo’s assemblages of small canvasses in filmic groupings that hit harder and appeal more than the big, perhaps coached-into-being canvasses below, under the big top. Upstairs, Mondo is writing small, as one writes small when writing surreptitiously with cramped script on the tiny pages of a private notebook by the glow of a flashlight under the sheets. The human and lagomorphic figures rendered on this scale look like ciphers, a hermetic script of unspeakable truths and pleasures and terrors. By presenting themselves to us as script, as language,they speak to us personally, where billboards do not, being public by nature.
The grand, theatrical, gallery-engrossing images arranged downstairs feel a bit Barnum and Bailey in comparison, (particularly the largely-ignored mirror-anti-mirror set of mega-paintings self-consciously arranged at the gallery’s entry passage, which suggest a miscalculated attempt at a grand gesture), not to mention the wallpaper-patterned, super-sized, cut-out stickers plastered randomly on the walls and and window recesses of the gallery mimicking the figures in the Mondo alphabet of tortured shadow-entities (above, with Mondo, his child and others), which seem as superfluous as pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey posters at a papal convocation.
The upshot of all this is that Mondo’s paintings are talismanic script, just as magic as inscriptions and mudras are in the context of cathartic trance rituals in Bali. Mondo has been in Bali a long time. His late spouse, the most significant woman painter of the 20th century in Bali, was Balinese. He knows what I’m talking about. And I perhaps know a bit about deciphering Mondo’s alphabetic code of figures, being a diehard fan of the ritual transmissions of obscure Balinese dalangs (shadow puppet masters).
Mondo’s are magic paintings. Magic in the tough-love sense of the word. And mark my words, they are not as shocking as they are shockingly affordable. But there ain’t no wonderland down this rabbit hole. Go look long and well at the works on the wall, or simply scan through the images of them on the Biasa Artspace website and see for yourself. But don’t forget, there is really no difference between bunny ears and devil horns. Ever.