Fika Leon: the Collector’s Most Coveted Contemporary Artist

Ekin Erkan

Fika Arestya Sultan, whose moniker is Fika Leon (b. 1983), is an Indonesian contemporary artist who lives and works in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, brooked in the south-central part of the island of Java. Most notably, Leon is a self-taught artist, or an “outsider artist”, albeit this term—anchored in a complex genealogy that often better picks out a naïve, “art brut” aesthetic inaugurated by Dubuffet (himself not properly “self-taught, but an art school drop-out) and advanced by the likes of James Castle, Bill Traylor, and Purvis Youth (to name but a few)—does not immediately come to mind when viewing their works. Rather, their works, as evinced by the recent “Miami Art Week” series, underlay prismatic, luminous backgrounds of sunlit pink, swamped maroons and rivulets of black—which at times suggest the emphatic tenacity of action-painting—upon which totemic figures dance and buoy, crazed gargantuan heads with bulbous billowing eyes mounted upon one another in piles. 

Clement Greenberg once famously noted that an artist, to achieve success not only on the marketplace but within the annals of art history, needed to develop an idiosyncratic aesthetic immediately recognizable—e.g., Newman’s “zips”, Pollock’s drips, Rothko’s fields, or Motherwell’s undulating, bleeding Stygian blocks. In his oft-cited 2014 article, “Flipping and the Rise of Zombie Formalism,” critic Walter Robinson lamented the uptake of a kind of theatricality characteristic of the contemporary art of the late 20th century and aughts: flat planes, abstraction seeping beyond the edges—the paintings utterly sundered from somatic affect. These “zombie formalist” paintings, to cull Robinson, not only lacked originality but, in the paints of a kind of putative formalism, had foregone phenomenology and any semblance of a panoramic view, brooked in plodding, repetitious aesthetic principles. It looked as if one abstract painting resembled the next—a kind of mechanical logic, shopworn and predictable platitudes robbing the canvas of dynamism. Turning towards Jacob Kassay and Lucien Smith as his case examples, Robinson wrote that:

With their simple and direct manufacture, these artworks are elegant and elemental, and can be said to say something basic about what painting is—about its ontology, if you think of abstraction as a philosophical venture. Like a figure of speech or, perhaps, like a joke, this kind of painting is easy to understand, yet suggestive of multiple meanings. (Kassay’s paintings, for example, are ostensibly made with silver, a valuable metal that invokes a separate, non-artistic system of value, not unlike medieval religious icons, which were priced by both their devotional subjects and by the amount of gold they contained.) Finally, these pictures all have certain qualities—a chic strangeness, a mysterious drama, a meditative calm—that function well in the realm of high-end, hyper-contemporary interior design. Another important element of Zombie Formalism is what I like to think of as a simulacrum of originality. Looking back at art history, aesthetic importance is measured by novelty, by the artist doing something that had never been done before. In our Postmodernist age, “real” originality can be found only in the past, so we have today only its echo. Still, the idea of the unique remains a premiere virtue. Thus, Zombie Formalism gives us a series of artificial milestones, such as the first-ever painting made with the electroplating process (Kassay), and the first-ever painting done using paint applied in a fire extinguisher (Smith).

Entertainer Faces (2022); Acrylic, enamel, black and white silicone on canvas, 160 x 160 cm
A Royal Celebration (2022); Acrylic, enamel, black and white silicone on canvas, 120 x 140 cm

Leon, although not (yet) exalted amongst the cosmopolitan art elite, though I believe his time will soon come, offers something of an antidote to the zombification of art that, qua Robinson, still emaciates the contemporary art world. He is not privy to gimmicks: there are no electroplating processes nor fire extinguishers to be found. The works are original, though not divorced from art history. There is a mystic kind of folk vernacular that pervades the paintings: not the Indonesian motifs found in intricate Balinese or traditional Javanese batik patterns, but the same kind of frenetic-cum-kinetic pulsation. There is a rhythmic design, balance, and proportion, characteristics of what Clive Bell called “significant form” readily detectable in works like “Entertainer faces” (2022) and “A Royal Celebration” (2022). Mouths agape and heads with bouncing eyelids stacked upon one another, the totem is the recurrent motif par excellence. The naïve art movement of Henri Rousseau and Alfred Wallis is best known for decreasing the size of proportional objects whilst retaining veridical distance; muting colors; and eschewing details to create strong-pattern-like patterns. If there is any compositional influence of these artists on Leon, it is in the third element: the patterns that emerge. We are drawn to this patternmaking, a weaving act which finds Leon’s repetition swaying into a movement of the rabble caught in hypnogogic dance. Our eyes here pan to the stick-like bodies and arms: an axis at the lower left corner of “Entertainer Faces” which is then overlaid by glassy, lucent pink blocks. There is a layering of simple forms upon one another to Leon’s work which builds into an apotheosis of blocks, like cragged bricks stitched into a pareidolia-suggestive grimace.

Customarily, artists—at least those who are not imbricated in gentry connections and thus able to readily begin at an over-inflated zenith (both in terms of projected value and reputation)—hone a position for themselves by first showing in small galleries, then medium-sized galleries, and eventually blue-chip galleries and, if they are particularly lucky, museum institutions. Leon’s trajectory is exceptional and near unprecedented: he began making art and, as a few select collectors sprung to his art, galleries began seeking his work at a rapid pace. He is an artist who does not seek an abundance of money—which, whatever one may say of those like the Jeff Koons or Damien Hirsts of the world and their participating in the art market with a kind of pastiche that brings out its triviality (playing the post-pop art game, so to speak), any artist motivated by splendor and immediate notoriety who possesses a recognizable aesthetic the likes of Leon could readily screenprint their works and turn dilettante parlor tricks, at a loss for their authenticity. Meyer Schapiro once wrote, in a manner readily understandable for specialists and non-specialists alike, that “Style is, above all, a system of forms with a quality and a meaningful expression through which the personality of the artist and the broad outlook of a group are visible.” The personality of the “outsider artist”, to use that troubled term, is inherently a form of life that is purposively poised towards art, often against all odds. Just as Leon does not seek wealth–in his imagery, but not in his material life—he similarly does not come from it, a self-taught artist who, contra Rousseau, Tanguy, or Dubuffet, does not emerge from a circle of artists. 

Leon’s canvasses beguile and bewilder, as he posits an outline of a head upon an incandescent other, filled in with primary colors; windows and familiar structures are turned into black voids. The forms are body-hugging, festooned and slipping into firm colored shapes that give his vision a kinetic dimension: one cannot help but be reminded of the Basquiat of the 1980s, diagrams-a-dance. Fike is voluptuous with form and austere with background; there is no concept of the foreground and no need for it. This is the ritual disco capered in the realm of the flattest of flatness, but not one which is deflated or punctured. There is a furibund fire set ablaze, a hermetic, puzzle-like prowess to these canvases. One does not glance but is drawn to look, to spend time with Leon’s canvases.

It is this mysticism that draws me and those in the know in. So far, those in the know—a burgeoning crowd of collectors and informed gallerists—has, indeed, created a veritable market for Leon’s work. Galleries now probe and hunt down the artist, with extraordinary action sales to boost. As recently as October 2022, works like Leon’s “Friendly Environment” (2022) have sold via Sotheby’s for 100,000 USD and this is no anomaly. An artist who is not coveted does not accrue such high prices; and even more rare is a self-taught artist garnering such prices. Granted, auction prices are not necessarily indicative of artistic merit—one need only consider recent whimsical trends and fads like NFTs, which have now conclusively been demonstrated to have no place in the history of fine art (and those of us who realized that it was an over-inflated marketing for speculative assets so foretold). But F work is not trendy—again, it even feels out of step with the fork that is figuration and abstraction. 

At home in Indonesia, Leon has exhibited in venerated venues, including the Up Gallery (2021); internationally, he has shown at myriad galleries including recent showings at the Singapore All About Art Gallery (2022) and a solo show at Le Mon Art Space in Taiwan (2022). These exhibition display notable virtuosity and Leon is, I maintain, the artist to keep an eye out for. He has numerous forthcoming international shows, including a group show in Dubai and Miami. There could, and should, be more consideration yet for his work—particularly for those tired of the twin poles of the ever-dominant “zombie formalist” abstraction of our day and return to “new-figuration” regnant in contemporary art galleries. Gallery directors would be wise to outline him in the next Outsider Art Fair and curators to showcase his paintings in museums like Amsterdam’s venerated Outsider Art Museum.

Happy Family Hugs (2022) Acrylic, enamel, black and white silicone on canvas; 120 x 140 cm
The Guardian (2022); acrylic, enamel, black and white silicone on canvas; (130 x 130 cm)