In the first Bits and Pieces of Murni article titled Murni & Pengosekan Style Through Mokoh, Savitri Sastrawan laid out the influence of Dewa Putu Mokoh (1934-2010) and the Pengosekan style of painting on Murni’s paintings. As is known, Mokoh had used simple forms and gentle pastel colours, while the Pengosekan style in its depictions of flora and fauna used much earth tones. The use of earth tones is seen most clearly in Murni’s early works such as Dari Barat (1994), Bermain Dengan Anak Anakku (1994) and Menanti Kedatangan Bapak (1994).
Couteau, in Bali Inspires: The Rudana Art Collection (2011), provides a most informative instruction on how to understand Balinese art for the non-Balinese audience by reorienting the audience to Balinese conceptions of space, representation and technique. In elaborating on techniques of drawing and colouring, he states that there is a strong adherence to coded conventions. Drawing often does not follow the movement of the hand nor of the wild imagination. Rather, it is the painstaking unfurling of narrative memories at the service of the patterned forms of iconography. Additionally, colour is “never used to define a form by itself; it is always contained within a graphic contour, and revealed through a complex layer of Chinese ink, the variable thickness of which defines the hue” (Couteau 2011:124). It is interesting to note that as such, colour is never an autonomous means of expression.
In a public conversation with Mondo where someone asked how Murni might have selected her colours, he answered frankly that such reasoning behind a selection is hard to articulate and hard to know. But he also posited that artists often worked within constraints, and at times, it is a matter of whether what paints were available at that moment of production. With this in mind, when looking at My Kucing (2004), My Gekko (2004), and Mondo (2004) one wonders whether such constraints were in place during the period of production because of the use of the same colour palette. But also, in comparing these three coloured paintings to My Kucingku (2004), one sees how colours in Murni’s paintings seem to function as filler to the already sketched graphic lines not just by how the colours are contained within those existing contours, but also by how the use of solid colour blocks highlight the forms defined by the lines.
Although juxtaposing Murni’s paintings with Kamasan paintings makes for an uneven comparison, it nonetheless provides for insights into the use of lines and colours in Balinese paintings. The emphasis on lines and contours can be seen in the Kamasan style of painting. Spanjaard, in Pioneers of Balinese Painting: The Rudolf Bonnet Collection (2007), mentioned that only 5 main colours are used: red, blue, brown, yellow and white (Spanjaard 2007:19). Traditionally, these colours were sourced from natural sources such as minerals, soot and crushed animal bones. Vickers, in Balinese Art: Paintings and Drawings of Bali 1800-2010 (2012), described Kamasan painting as a communal or largely family activity where the leading artist first draws an initial sketch in light ink line or pencil of figures and narratives. After, a group of apprentices and colourists of mostly women continue the main painting work. Finally, when the colourists are done, the final lines added in by the master artist complete the painting.
Indeed, as such, the rendering of form is about the use of lines rather than colours. And Murni’s works is a strong example of the anchoring linear element in painting. There are from year 2004 and 2005—the last two years of Murni’s life—a number of uncoloured paintings that demonstrate this; the untitled paintings from 2004 are two of them.
The selection of paintings below further highlights the strong linear element of Murni’s paintings, of how the lines define the forms, of how the colours within function as an artificial or illusory layer upon a monochromatic surface—almost, like a cosmetic colour.
Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that the element of colour dominates her paintings, and that the colour element is one of the most striking features of her paintings after the often-curious figures and subjects. The earth tones of her early paintings gave way at some point in 1997 to pastel colours before developing into the bright intensified pop colours of her later paintings. The pop colours stand in stark incongruity to her grotesque and sometimes monstrous figures that at times confuse the beholder who expect such figures to be cloaked and surrounded instead by dark or violent colours. As such, the colours give her paintings a kind of unreality.
To return to the almost cosmetic quality of Murni’s colours, Batchelor in his book Chromophobia (2000) has said that “[i]f colour is cosmetic, it is added to the surface of things, and probably at the last moment.” (Batchelor 2000:52) But yet, colours are never merely just cosmetic as can be felt in the effect that it produces in the beholder. Indeed, in Murni’s paintings, it is more that just a subordination of colours to lines—her colours ease us into the more menacing subjects of some of her paintings. As Batchelor has said as he continues along the tread of cosmetic colours in his lengthy exposition:
“Colour, then, is arbitrary and unreal: a mere make-up. But while it may be superficial, that is not quite the same as it being trivial, for cosmetic colour is also always less than honest. There is an ambiguity in make-up; cosmetics can often confuse, cast doubt, mask or manipulate; they can produce illusions or deceptions—and this makes them sound more than a little like drugs. Drugs that are applied to the body: drugs of the skin. If colour is a cosmetic, it is also—and again—coded as feminine. Colour is a supplement, but it is also, potentially a seduction. Cosmetics make flesh more appealing, flesh that may be tired or old, or flesh that may be diseased, disfigured, decayed or even dead.” (2000:52)