The Many Faces Of Balinese Artist Ketut ‘Nik’ Budiantara

Published 27 November 2017   

“I want my paintings to make people happy” says Balinese artist, Ketut Budiantara, otherwise known as Nik. “I feel happy when I’m painting and I want that feeling to be present in each and every piece of my artwork.”

Written by: RACHEL LOVE

Nik’s father worked as an ‘undagi’ – a traditional Balinese architect, and although his particular brand of architecture didn’t call for highly detailed architectural plans or technical drawings, he always had a pencil in his hand, and would always sketch his ideas on paper. This fascinated Nik and inspired him to draw and paint from a very young age. His ambition took him to Bali’s famous college of art, Institut Seni Indonesia Denpasar, where he embraced and studied all of the genres.

Nik’s early artwork rocked the realism theme, moving into a traditional Balinese style before dabbling in more modern, abstract realms. This led slowly to a figurative phase, typified by elongated forms and simple, serene faces, which then evolved into the compelling and humorous, cartoon-like paintings of faces that he does today. Anyone who didn’t know better would probably describe Nik’s style as abstract portraiture, except the paintings are not portraits! The artist explains, “The faces I create are all in my imagination, they’re not real people, they’re not even inspired by real people, they’re just fictitious characters that pop out of my head.”

Each of Nik’s highly-stylised faces achieves a unique combination of specificity and generalisation, each conveying an assumed identity hidden behind the distorted uniform features and almost mask-like expressions. With their cylindrical necks, elongated noses, small and hazy almond-shaped eyes and tiny pursed mouths, it would seem that the characters have all hailed from the same long-necked, big-nosed, almond-eyed, tiny-mouthed family. You might think that would leave the faces devoid of personality or appearing to be vacant, but Nik will use the tilt of a head or the curve of a nose, a funky hairstyle, a scarf, a stand-up collar, or a jauntily positioned hat to convey individuality. Thus each one is different, with facial expressions that could be perceived as ranging from haughty to apathetic, coolly self-assured to shy. “I love to make a big nose and then I make the eyes small to provoke an aura of mystery”, says Nik. Before he begins each painting, he already knows whether he wants it to be man or a woman, but the rest “depends on my mood”. Some of the heads look left and others look right, some of the faces seem weathered or lined; colours appear in clothing and headwear against solid pastel-hued backgrounds executed in shades of light blue, pink, peach, lemon and peppermint green. He uses a palette knife for texture and a pencil for definition, sometimes embellishing the finished work with diagonal pencil strokes and the occasional line of blurred letters or numbers. When viewed together, the paintings display an openness to cultural hybridity, expressing a sense of light and ambience, and transcending the techniques that were employed to create them so that they appear to breathe the very air and atmosphere in which they were conceived. For Nik, the challenge is in making each one different and never knowing what face he will pull next.

Nik’s greatest inspiration is the work of Modigliani the Italian figurative painter who worked primarily in Paris – the then-centre of the avante garde – at the beginning of the 20th century, as well as the neo-expressionist paintings of the late American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the work of one of Bali’s most recognised contemporary artists, Made Djirna. “In the long-term, I don’t want to attach myself to any specific style or technique”, claims Nik, “I want to learn, and to try, as many different methods and genres as possible”.

Nevertheless, this talented young artist’s current trademark series is a bestseller for Purpa Art Gallery in Seminyak, with fans and collectors regularly coming back for more. Ari Purpa smiles as she explains why the paintings are proving to be such a hit, “Sometimes people look for themselves or someone they know in the paintings – ‘That one looks just like your dad!’ – which could well be the reason for their purchase, and then they get addicted and almost always buy a few more.”

Ari frames each picture in a simple white frame, and the compact square size (generally 40cm x 40cm) means that they can fit into suitcases, although, of course, the acrylic-painted canvases can alternatively be rolled for easy transportation. The neat size also makes the paintings perfect for adorning small spaces – hallways, staircase walls, bathrooms, alcoves, bookshelves, and corners of kitchens – and people love to buy them in sets of three, or more, in matching or contrasting colours that will blend with almost any décor.

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