Adam de Boer

Adam de Boer (b.1984) graduated with a BA in Painting from the College of Creative Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara (2006) and an MA in Fine Art from the Chelsea College of Art, London (2012). Recent exhibitions include Gajah Gallery, Jakarta and Singapore (2023, 2022); Ben Brown Fine Arts, London and Hong Kong (2022); Taymour Grahne Projects, London (2022); The Hole, New York and Los Angeles (2022, 2023); Hunter Shaw Fine Art, Los Angeles (2020/2018); World Trade Centre, Jakarta (2018); and Art|Jog, Yogyakarta (2018/2015) De Boer is currently a Joan Mitchell Foundation Fellow and in 2017 was awarded a Fulbright Research Fellowship to Java, Indonesia. Other grants include those from the University of the Arts, London + Arts for India, The Cultural Development Corporation, DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and The Santa Barbara Arts Fund. For over a decade de Boer has traveled throughout Indonesia to investigate his Eurasian heritage. His recent work employs imagery and traditional crafts from the region as a way to connect his artistic practice with those of his distant cultural forebears. He currently lives in Los Angeles.
March 13, 2023
Tell us about your practice.
In short, I’m currently making artworks that are informed by my cultural background as an Indo-Dutch-American. I do this by mixing traditional Javanese craft, especially ‘batik’ (a wax-resist dyeing process) and ‘Western’ painting logic to tell stories about my lived experience and research into the colonial era. For example, many of my recent batik paintings tell stories of urban life in Southern California, subject matter that the medium has never been used to depict.
Your craft is very much grounded in your connection with your Indonesian ancestry. Can you tell us why did you choose to explore batik, and what was your journey like to master the craft?
My decision to start making my own batiks came from earlier experiments wherein I painted onto, collaged with found and purchased batik cloth. However, I was soon dissatisfied with those early projects. Something about the ‘borrowing’, changing, and sometimes covering with paint traditional batik patterns felt like just another example of a colonial impulse. And the paintings looked so Rococo in a way I thought trite. So, in order to both fix that and get ‘closer’ to the medium, I decided to attempt making batik myself and in my own way.
My journey to ‘master’ the craft (I’ve hardly mastered it and definitely never will) began with me seeking out tutors at traditional batik workshops in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, a regency near my father’s birthplace and one that is famous for its batik production. This started as a simple impulse about a decade ago while I was in the country on a surfing/ancestry research trip. To be honest with you, to begin making batik, I actually joined an afternoon workshop at a travelers’ cafe and it changed my life forever! Kind of ridiculous circumstances in hindsight, but I liked the process, the results, and the artisans teaching me so much that I kept going back as a kind of ‘independent study’ while on vacation. Those first batiks were used to apply to my Fulbright Fellowship the following year, and when I returned to Jogja for that yearlong stint, my enthusiasm for the medium grew and my more intensive research into batik began.
Traditionally batik as a craft is rarely a method utilized to paint landscapes or figures, but that became central to your practice. Can you share the thought behind your approach?
I really didn’t have much thought when I began experimenting with batik over ten years ago. I had long been a fan of the textile tradition and I loved working with my hands and trying out different media in my work. As a way to connect my painting with my Indonesian ancestry, I simply thought, ‘What if I used batik to paint this portrait or landscape instead of oil paint?’ Batik is primarily used for sartorial decoration, and as such mostly uses repeating ‘overall’ floral or geometric motifs because those look great stitched together into a sarong or dress shirt that needs uniformity. But instead, I would be making ‘batik paintings’ so those considerations and limitations weren’t an issue. The strategy of how to even accomplish a ‘batik painting’ from scratch without any examples to learn from, and all the mistakes and happy accidents that came along the way, have been the actual ‘Art’ for me. Batik is an ancient medium and it has always changed depending on the culture and hands of the artists who have taken up the tjanting tool; I simply wanted to be another in that long line, adding whatever I could to the medium as it continues on.
With your current show at Gajah Gallery, titled “Littoral Images” you mentioned that you’re using the sea as a mnemonic for the discourse about globalized existence and identity. Can you expand a little bit on that notion?
When making a show, I often find an overarching theme or symbol that can unite the paintings after a few key works are completed. Rather than working with repeating imagery, a certain scale, or a color palette to produce a coherent series, I prefer the links to be metaphorical, textual, or even share a kind of emotional kinship. With this show and the opportunity to exhibit in Indonesia again, I found myself wanting to make images of the beaches I’ve enjoyed there, historical nautical maps of the region I’ve studied, and pictures illustrating the colonial novels I’ve read. Disparate imagery to be sure, but all of which recognize sea trade as the legacy behind everything in our Modern world. For some reason, the word ‘littoral’ —the indeterminate space between land and sea—kept coming to mind as I looked at the pieces together in the studio. And since most of the narratives in the works are somewhat oblique, I liked the irony in the title being a homophone of ‘literal’ because nothing in the show is deadpan.
What has been inspiring you lately?
The show at Gajah was quite influenced by art and historical fiction from the Indo-Malay region that deals with the end of the colonial era and postmodern times since independence. For example, specific pieces borrow titles from Anthony Burgess’s ‘Malayan Trilogy’ and others nod to Ashley Bickerton’s ‘Blue Man’ series about his expat lifestyle in Bali. I think a lot about the travelers, artists, writers, and academics that have come before me and who worked to better understand Indonesian culture and its reverberating effects on the rest of the world.
What’s next for you?
Immediately following my opening at Gajah, I’m traveling to eastern Indonesia for some remote beach time with my wife, Leah, for our honeymoon. It’s her first time in SE Asia so it’s really an exciting trip for us. Professionally speaking, my next show will be a series of Los Angeles landscapes I’m making for Taymour Grahne gallery in London which will open in January 2024. Other group shows and fairs are also possible but for the time being, I think I’d prefer to focus on one big project each year. It’s been rather busy for me the past three years and while I don’t want to ‘slow down’ the momentum, I do want to make better and more ambitious work and to have more time with each series.

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