THE QUEST FOR THE PERFECT LINE
This story is about one man’s lifelong ambition.
It sounds churlish and cruel to say it’ll never be achieved. But that’s the harsh reality and Lim Keng understands this awesome truth.
This knowledge is not skin deep. It goes down, down into his artist’s soul, plummeting to an unreachable place. It’s right that it should never be found yet must forever be sought.
Like Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, Lim knows that to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.
And journey he does, spiritually and practically. Most Sundays as the sounds of subuh (dawn prayers) roll off the rooftops he’s in a car heading for the hills outside Surabaya.
There he rests in the cool of a friend’s villa before strolling into nearby paddocks in search of bovines. For Lim has a crush on cattle. He’s in awe of oxen.
“Cattle are important creatures in the life of humans,” he said. “They provide milk that’s the basis for dairy foods like butter and cheese. They pull the plough so crops can be grown, but they’re beaten to labour harder.
“Their dung fertilises the soil. And when a cow is no longer strong enough to work she’s butchered for meat.”
Cows placid and yoked, playful and pensive, ruminating on a world where they will forever be slaves. These are the pictures Lim creates and he does so with a deceptively easy and sensuous style.
So simple that few in a society which tends to measure art by the metre appreciate the significance of his work. Why pay Rp 10 million (US$ 1100) for a few strokes of thick black ink when for the same money you can buy a complex painting hatched with detail, tinted with shades?
More than half a century ago Lim was producing such works and giving them away because his disapproving Dad saw no financial future for his son’s talent.
And in this he was certainly right, for Lim lacks the lust for cash that drives the mercantile class into which he was born. The little shop he’s inherited in central Surabaya, stocked with knick-knacks and Chinese sweetmeats, is more a convenience store. It’s the sort of place you go to when you run out of matches, not to do the week’s shopping.
In the room behind is the real business, nine square metres of studio cum warehouse cum gallery. Want a case of mineral water or a kilo of eggs? Wait till we shift the masterpieces – but watch out for that solid timber cowbell. It was collected at the last bull races in Madura. See that picture on the wall? Sorry, it’s behind the brolly.
If Lim had any entrepreneurial spirit some of his works would be framed alongside detergents in the shop window just in case an aficionado of rare art might chance to peep in passing. No chance.
His friends and admirers push him to agree to yet another exhibition, but he’s had enough of being promoted and patronised. Better to stay behind the counter or in the cow barn, watching, thinking, searching for that elusive, lovely, seductive line.
Lim Keng, also known as Lim Kho Lie, was born in Sidoarjo, East Java. His religion is Taoism. His parents were from China. After they divorced in 1950 his mother returned to her homeland.
Lim’s hatred of cruelty to animals was set when a pet chicken he’d nurtured as a child was slaughtered for the Chinese New Year celebration.
The distressed lad became a vegetarian. Anyone doubting the value of a meatless diet should watch this spry 72-year old dart around his shop serving customers, briskly snatching goods from high shelves, humping sacks of rice.
Driven by his desire to draw he was apprenticed to an oil painter called Nurdin and a traditional Chinese artist Lim Wen Twan.
In 1962 he went to Yogya and enrolled at the Academy of Visual Arts. But he was dissatisfied with the formality of the lessons. Two years later his frustration and pressure from the family proved too much and he returned to Surabaya to manage the business. Art became a secondary consideration.
In Yogya his skills with the pencil were encouraged. He abandoned watercolours and oils to concentrate on black and white art. He discovered Picasso and so began his search for the ultimate line.
In Indonesian black-and-white art is known as sketsa. Unfortunately this translates back as ‘sketching’ – a word used to describe a trial outline for a painting to come. And who wants to buy a work in progress?
Not that Lim wants to sell. If he doesn’t like the buyer and thinks his or her appreciation of art too base there’s no trade. No wonder he’s not ranked among Asia’s new millionaires.
He might have been had he pushed his work. In 1980 his drawings were shown at an international exhibition in Paris where their spare European style drew a strong response.
Further exhibitions in Yogya and Surabaya didn’t attract the same applause, though the locals did like his early realistic street scenes provided there were lots of lines. Lim, a gentle man unhappy in crowds, retreated to his shop and sought inspiration in the paddocks and among ordinary workers.
“I just want to work hard and keep quiet,” he said. “I’ve always found that really clever people don’t make a lot of noise.” Five years ago a book of his work was published by a cultural organisation in Surabaya but interest wasn’t strong.
Refining, paring back, minimalising. Less is more. As the sharpest newspaper sub-editors say: Not the flesh, but the bone. Not the bone, but the marrow.
To get the flow and discipline right he pours ink into a small plastic bottle with a rubber teat. The rapid flow speeds his work, capturing the curve of movement, the swirl of action. No erasure. Right first time - or not at all.
The beholder has to sense the unshown story in the push and pull of limbs, the twisting neck, the splay of feet and hooves. No still life in Lim’s work. Just the outline. No infill. This art is not for the imaginatively idle.
“I make many attempts to get it right,” he said. “At first I use the tips of burnt sticks made from coconut shell to draw before employing the ink pot.
“Only a few people understand my work and they often want to collect. They tend to be Westerners or people familiar with European culture. Indonesians want color in art.
“I’m never 100 per cent happy. There’s failure, failure, failure. I’ll never be satisfied. I love what I’m doing. I just wish it could be full time.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post Wed 15 March 2006)