I Nyoman Masriadi has won international acclaim as a leading Southeast Asian contemporary artist of this generation. Born in Bali and currently based in Jogjakarta, Indonesia, the immediately recognizable and striking visual language of Indonesian artist I Nyoman Masriadi is what has made him one of the most successful contemporary painters to emerge from Southeast Asia. His works are characteristic for featuring heavily muscled, dark-skinned figures, reminiscent of the artist's influence from elements of contemporary visual culture, such as athletes, comic books and video games. Following his first solo-exhibition held at the Singapore Art Museum in 2008, Masriadi's work gained critical attention from curators, gallerists, collectors, as well as the art market. In more recent works, Masriadi has shifted toward a more narrative approach in his paintings.
In Jago Neon, Masriadi adopts the form of the comic strip directly, where he has also alluded to its form in other paintings. He uses the frame-by-frame layout as a setting for his witty blend of the western superhero within an Indonesian context. Text heavy, this piece communicates in words just as much as a comic book does, but Masriadi co-opts the storytelling form to explain the intent behind his work, especially in the red box on the bottom right of the painting. Where such text boxes usually contain the narrator’ voice explaining the scene, Masriadi inserts information that almost functions as an artist statement, beginning the first sentence with “This artwork adapted from comics…” The self-aware aspect of the painting is reflective of the way the artist inserts himself as commentator in his paintings on occasion. In an interview, he said that he expresses himself best though painting, and Jago Neon is an excellent example of this aspect of Masriadi’s connection to his work. He further emphasises the flatness of the painting by leaving a white border around the painted area on the canvas, painting the text “Art by MASRIADI Hero Vs Hero Comics” with an edition number and a date that mimics the serial dating of comic books.
He also includes an email address, situating and contexualizing the painting in the age of the internet, another self-referencing act that reduces the distance between the viewer and the artist. The format of the comic strip recreates the energy of movement inherent to the medium, especially in the way the viewer reads it, with our eyes being led quickly from one action sequence to another. Additionally, he uses text to communicate sound, in the same way that comic books do. The shape, size and colour of the words “CiAAAT!” and “WUUT!” communicate the movement of the katana, and the sound words engage the viewer’s imagination to recreate the action of battle. The words used in the email, “firstname.lastname@example.org” reflect the ubiquity of western companies, not only in pop culture, but on the internet. “Jago Neon” translates to Neon Hero, a reference to his other painting titled similarly, which depicts a caricatured Batman figure, who Goenawan Mohamad reads as a melancholic, lone figure, whose musculature seems irrelevant as he stands on his own in an empty field.
Indeed, the miserable Batman figure is the subject of this painting. The warning, written in the red box on the bottom right of the painting reads: “If you’re really strong make sure you’re the strongest one.” In the action scenes depicted above, Batman is targeted by Samuro, who deems him weak, and tells him that flaw is in itself justification to attack him. Masriadi notes on behalf of the viewer that in this adaptation, the Samuro character is a “symbol of the anger.” He does not specify whose anger Samuro epitomises, and as such our interpretations of the rage is unavoidably multilayered. This rage could be a personal one, where the artist as a superhero has achieved status but continues being attacked for not being in top form all the time, or one of feelings of inadequacy and springing from a sense of injustice.
The sense of hilarity and injustice in the situation comes through when reading the text in the speech bubbles. Batman underlines the incredulity of the situation, advocating for himself as an upright, humble champion of the “people,” and argues that Samuro should be challenging other heroes who are more concerned about their reputation.
Without missing a beat, Samuro’s response contains the conceit of the painting, a possibly politically charged commentary: Batman’s weakness makes him an easy target, regardless of his good intentions or righteousness of character, and his status as a hero exposes him to these attacks. When understood this way, the “anger” the artist spells out seems to make sense, personified as a self-righteous Samuro, blind with rage, and in search for an easy target, a scapegoat. In the background, we see a smug Superman surveying the scene, with a speech bubble that reads “ini akan hobo!” which translates to “this is going to be exciting!” This addition then involves the element of spectacle and schadenfreude, the enjoyment of the inconvenience of others, adding a layer of frustration and biting criticism to his commentary.
While Masriadi replicates many comic book art conventions in Jago Neon, his iconic style shines through in its wit and representation of his figures, notably Samuro. The bulging muscles on Batman and Superman are standard issue, and also seen in his other renditions of everyday figures in other paintings. However, it is interesting that Samuro is completely covered up, and so Masriadi’s iconic musculature is absent on the main antagonist in this scene. The artist does include his trademark shine of the skin on Samuro, and we see the intensity of his features in the second panel, with his oversized brow muscles, and giant hand that points accusingly at the viewer. Additionally, Masriadi has included his sketch-style symbols that peek out at the viewer unassumingly from the canvas. They do not distract, but as with their presence in his other paintings, provide subtle subtext and introduce secondary ideas that playfully add to the message of the artwork.