New Emissary

Agus Purnomo, A ‘Numbers Guy’

An unpleasant experience at his local Tesco led to this Indonesian artist finding a distinctive form for his art.

Agus Purnomo, A ‘Numbers Guy’
Credit: Emran Kassim

Each Thursday on the New Emissary, art consultant and Tokyo art gallery owner Bob Tobin reports on the contemporary art scene in the Asia-Pacific, sharing his unique insights into some of the emerging trends and artists from around the region.

On my recent business trip to Indonesia I landed in Jogjakarta, and went from the airport right to the home and studio of one of our gallery’s artists, Agus ‘Bagul’ Purnomo, who creates abstract works painting primarily with numbers. (Last week, I wrote about why he has chosen this distinctive form for his art.) Agus does with numbers what a Michelin star chef can do with vegetables. His numbers sometimes look like people or like they’re literally running. In some cases, you can’t even tell that he’s using numbers until you closely examine the paintings—which tend to draw you in like a show window.

Each painting is so different and Purnomo works with the broadest palate of any artist we work with—in photos I’ve seen of him, he’s standing or sitting in front of the canvas with more than 20 paint cans at his side. In ‘Jogja,’ as everyone calls Jogjakarta, I had a chance to see examples of his very recent flower series, ‘Secret Garden,’ consisting of paintings that recreate flowers including pink roses, hydrangeas and dahlias. These aren’t paintings of flowers; rather they’re abstract paintings that give the feeling of flowers. You feel as if you’re in a field of blossoms when you see these works, since they have the same bursts of colour you’d find in any garden.


Hydrangea Hortensia by Agus Purnomo

I also learned from Agus how he works when he’s painting. He doesn’t paint a little every day and complete a painting over several weeks or months, like some artists I’ve observed. Agus paints in creative bursts, sometimes working from morning to night. And the feeling he has at the end of the day? Exhilaration, not exhaustion. It was wonderful to hear this. How many people in other lines of work can make this kind of statement?

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During my visit to Jogjakarta, I also saw abstract works that Agus created before he started working with numbers. They were beautiful and tranquil and you could see his substantial talent in them as well. But it was when he started to work with numbers that people started noticing him and his career started to take off. His first one-man show at the Tembi Contemporary sold out, with most of the works sold on the first night of the show. Well-known Indonesian collector Dr Oei Hong Djien has acquired his works, as have other artists.

At his home and studio, I also saw his works with Arabic calligraphy and his paintings with letters and words. The paintings using words and the alphabet are very different because the words are clearer than the numbers paintings, the meaning is less abstract and there’s more of a message.

‘Speed’ by Agus Purnomo

‘Speed’ by Agus Purnomo

I brought one of his ‘word paintings’ back home with me to show in the gallery, one that’s composed entirely of the names of automobiles. The painting in this ‘word’ series that I liked best was one that had just two words repeated again and again on the canvas. The two words are very clear and they’re of two countries that have been at war: Israel and Palestine. I liked it because the painting seemed to bring the two countries together, at least symbolically. This is a painting not about war but about the hope for peace. And, like all of Agus’s work, it’s about much more than numbers or words—it’s about expressing a full range of emotions and finding and recognizing our own humanity.

In Jogja, I met more than 20 artists, including some of the luminaries of the Indonesian art world. I’ll start covering these visits next week.

On a different note, our gallery got a rave review in the art publication Art iT and I’d like to invite anyone based in Japan (or just planning on visiting), to join us for the opening of Jun Ogata’s new Zen Garden Show on November 19 from 6-9 PM. We’ll show more than 40 of his works on canvas and paper, plus some small works from Agus Purnomo.