Painter I Nyoman Pasek: Cement-Boned Underworld

the black and white details of a busy Hindu painting by I Nyoman Pasek

Filling meters of canvas with this amount of detail takes I Nyoman Pasek years. The end result a space that commands closer inspection while the mind and eyes go for a macabre whirl.

It was already mid-2011 when I stopped my motorcycle near the red sidewalks of Ubud, Bali. The display window of a Nasi Padang restaurant – tens of dishes stacked five-high in the window – had me dismounting and dodging across the road for some curried rice and veggies.

The waitress, cook, and owner, who looked distinctly like an old Filipina woman I used to teach, made the usual inquiries of where I’d come from, where I stay, and what I do for Rupiah.

“Very mixed,” I replied, in Bahasa Indonesia.  “I teach English, I write, and I also come here on the weekends to find paintings and sell them on the Internet.  Yes, the paintings of Ubud are very beautiful.”

“Oh so you must’ve already seen his…Yah?” she asked, one arm pointing at her cracked and empty, pink wall.

Her neighbor’s gallery opened directly onto the street and paintings were simply propped up on nails without frames.  There were some great ones of birds of Bali in sizes that would backdrop exhibits at Museums of Natural History. Between the birds, mad, sprawling, steamy, tropical orgies and ceremonies stretched across thick canvas.

The smallest of I Nyoman Pasek's bizarre and grotesque murals

A quarter of a meter wide and just under $200, from here on up, prices and sizes sprawl like tourists on Seminyak’s Double Six beach.

A velvety black street dog with a jangling red collar and perked ears ran through the gallery into the apartment behind. I followed to peak in.

The artist’s elderly wife, wrapped in batik sarong and colorful belt, was coming out of her kitchen in flip-flops.  As locals tend to be, she was happy to see even a scrubby-looking tourist in her shop.

Behind the back wall of the shabby showroom, the artist’s well-conformed bamboo daybed sits in the center of murals that I can only describe with a train of adjectives. They were beyond intense, large enough to build a small home with, fiery and ghastly enough to send children running, but somehow conveying of a mature peace – the peace of Bali – that is the acceptance and the open exhibitionism of the agony and lust involved in this pathetic human condition. The murals, with all the fire of revelations, managed to convey both agony and peace, were as crowded as the island of the Gods, and firmly nailed the essence of Bali.

Nyoman was sick, ‘and all because of his damned painting,’ his wife exclaimed.

She explained that he would paint for days on end, barely stopping to drink or eat, and he stops speaking.

‘If illness doesn’t stop him, he paints for years,’ she said, and the murals around their cluttered apartment were proof of this.

Body parts of mythological figures, such as Kala Rauh, emerged as animistic forces from clouds, their mouths – without lower jaws – eclipsed planets. Cows with bulbous stomachs strained themselves aloft on a canopy of palm fronds. A vertical chain of people, hands and feet clasped together in prayer, seated one on top of the other, rose to meet the stars. Some of their eyes spoke of a sickly intense rush of adrenaline while their mouths were calmly grinning. The rippling earth formed into blankets that were propped up on the backs of cattle, under which small people writhed and thrashed in a hellish darkness. Stalks of coconut palms rose out of the crotch of a fanged ghoul, alive while being reclaimed by the jungle. The jungle, she was ever-present in both I Nyoman’s work and reclaiming their wall-less apartment.

inside the studio of one of Ubud's best, and least-known, painters

The artist and his wife reside in a very simple flat behind his gallery. Their bedroom is walled in macabre murals.

The artist’s sweet wife knew well the prices of all of his work and she wasn’t going to be nego’d.  Any such work of demons and yearlong explorations of the Hindu mystic-metaphysical were considered priceless. Even if they were sun-bleached or mouse-nibbled, their hardened keeper wouldn’t go lower than fifty million Rupiah, or about five thousand dollars per mural. She led me to I Nyoman’s birds.

These two beautiful anomalies and their hound have since become my friends – as they are boldly unique and as open-concept as their apartment. Building of the four-story, cement-and-rebar structure was started in the early seventies, then abandoned due to lack of funding. Tools and bamboo scaffolding had been sitting around for the last three decades. Bundles of rebar stuck out from what should’ve been closets; the muddy cement apartments were very open-concept in deed. Few of them having four walls, they opened directly into the jungle of Ubud, where a waterfall emerged from a garbage-rimmed cave below bowing bamboo and at least four visible canopies of old-growth rainforest.

The painter's studio extends four stories down to a river.

Descending the dereliction with I Nyoman, looking out on the reclaiming forest of Ubud.

Except for a few squatters and their piles of garbage, the old ghost attracted only I Nyoman, his wife, and the Nasi Padang restaurant where I go for mixed rice.

Each time I stop by I am handed a large pint glass of hot coffee and the three of us talk. I Nyoman Pasek is a giant Indonesian man with a large gut and gray hair. Without any sense of vanity, the artist goes without shirt, revealing his wounds: mysterious rashes – often dribbling blood – that cover his large body. His shorts never change, and so are covered in stains. His face, bordered with white fuzz, is pure – without any morbidity – and as vividly inspired as a child’s.

One day, the artist’s wife met me on the road, leading me into her husband’s domain.

“He’s down making a path to the river,” she said.

The bright older woman and I had a pint of coffee and washed over one another like tides on the beach, salt water and sand, trying to find some common ground, and just passing the time.

The artist’s velvet-black dog – somewhat like a bat – came bounding out of a dark recess of the cement loft. He now knows me well and began to weave calmly around my legs.

“Wow he’s a naughty one,” she added, in Bahasa Indonesia. “But he’ll never bite you.”

I then gave her an unnecessary speech of how she must take better care of the artist’s work; much of it is sun-bleached and chewed by insects and mice. Her polite smile – a smile in this country can mean a million things – was bouncing her sentiments back at me, and my insistent suggestions simply further deduced her stance. Protecting the paintings meant not having them on display, and so it was preferable for their quality to deteriorate – while insisting that the soaring price stay as high. She would also never say if her husband were keras kepala, or a little hardheaded. We turned as the large figure of I Nyoman Pasek entered from the rear of the flat.

The painted face of a Balinese ghoul looks out of a detailed underworld.

Interconnectivity is the cohesive ambience of I Nyoman’s painfully detailed paintings. It is also the ambience of the magical and art-rich regency of Gianyar.

His rashes had spread around his stomach and a stream of blood ran down one of his legs; his unshaven face with its layer of white dandelion seeds was as Holy as usual. I shook the ogre’s large hands and we sat awhile, him on his indented old bamboo daybed.  

After the long trip to Ubud, I had little to say. With some hesitation, it was suggested that I take a walk to the river – to see what the artist had been busy doing. 

I followed his swaying, sweaty gray hair through the cluttered kitchen. The unfinished apartment opened directly into what should have been the stairwell. It was unlit and the steps were thick with mud and grime, and after two flights we emerged on a lower floor. Garbage was mixed with mounds of earth, strewn across this gigantic slab of cement, sticking out into the jungle. I continued following my old man down, down, down through the raw ugliness of it all. Two floors below, foliage was closing in to reclaim the cement ghost. Garbage clung to the walls. The old man spent a while bending back small pieces of rebar thoughtfully as sometimes I forget how tall I am.

Ducking low below the next floor, my right foot in search of footing on the artist’s makeshift stairs, I sensed the mind of the painter. The mind is really the creator, some say, and in many ways I felt as though he was leading me – into his mind, wondrous and spun.

He explained how he had fashioned the steps himself, though of course he had. He didn’t trust the lower flight anymore, and I sided with him. From the lowest platform, hanging above a muddy rush of water that disappeared with a continued swoop into the slit of a green-walled cave, we could see up the skirt of the jungle we both revered as a deity.

We stood a while and scanned the jungle before ascending the mucky steps to the unfinished flats, stopping at the floor below his own, to scan the jungle, again.

“Wow so where were you during the earthquake the other day?” I asked. “I wouldn’t want to be in this building – it’s not all that strong, is it?”

It was a good attempt, and something that two men might enjoy talking about while standing on a dubiously solid cement platform. It was really stating the obvious, as I resort to, sometimes, and it got no response from the artist.

“When people say it’s not safe,” he finally drawled. “This old man says it’s not about how strong the building is, but how strong your connect to your God is. When people ask me if this building is safe, this old man can’t even answer!  Can’t even answer!”

“But of course very religious people have died in earthquakes before,” I said. “Planes have crashed, and of course there have been people – people with strong faith – on board.”

The old man brandished the same smile I had seen earlier on his wife. Although unchallenged, I still felt as though I was the one who just didn’t get it.

The artist perched himself at the top of the stairs, looking beat and photogenic as an old and brutish man with the youngest smile, body in ruins, wild imaginings manifesting against the backdrop of the cement bones of these ghost condominiums.

In this cement ghost with this visionary and his calm black hound, I stood tall above the great, sprawling vortex of Ubud.

Inside a painter's studio, Ubud, Bali.

When no one was around, I snapped this shot of I Nyoman’s larger murals; however, the ones hanging in his bedroom are much larger.

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