Today there are many channels available for visual artists from Southeast Asia to broaden their international reputation _ overseas residencies, art competitions, participation in leading biennales. But Natee Utarit does not forget to include a very basic element, a presence in commercial art galleries.
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To achieve a place in the global level of this business, nothing else but the true value of the artwork itself is the compulsory qualification. Certainly, this 43-year-old has enough of that.
Natee majored in print when he was a student at Silpakorn University, but he seems to have permanently switched to the realm of painting. He has been internationally acknowledged for some years, almost always with the backing of private agencies and not through the government's support. His canvases are regular items in Asian art auction houses, including that of Christie's.
Two years ago, he was included in the "From Asia To The World" pavilion at the Venice Biennale, along with leading contemporary Asian names. And in 2010, Singapore Art Museum featured a two-decade retrospective exhibition of Natee's work, and published a hardcover book surveying his career. Currently, his credit is growing from regional to global, especially in European countries. Fortunately, he's aware that Bangkok art aficionados should be able to view his pieces, and Natee has brought the works that have been on an international tours back to his homeland. These paintings have travelled around Asian and European art venues over the past two years, and many of them have been purchased by overseas collectors.
Entitled "Illustration Of The Crisis", the show, which takes place at Bangkok University Gallery, still features the artist's signature _ the employment of still objects wrought with private association and personal obsession. In the past, this humble and neat-looking painter often used the image of his own mother, profiles of lotus trees, flags and Renaissance art as his visual motifs. In the current project, animals, artillery, armies, toys and human organs seem to be his infatuation.
All metaphors take turn to appear in this or that canvas, resulting in an assemblage of still objects with a quasi-surrealistic manner. Natee's current gimmick reminds us of Salvador Dali or Rene Magritte in the way he juxtaposes figurative objects from different categories to construct a new topography of ideas.
Experiencing this illustrative project is like taking a pilgrimage. The journey is neither religious nor spiritual, but rather a social and political one.
Executed during the period when Thailand convulsed under the mayhem of politics a few years ago, these paintings are subtly equipped with socio-political commentary. This is not because the artist wishes to discourage an articulation of clear ideology, but he uses his creativity to address it in the way that a wise visual artist can manage his medium. In the show, major social institutions get interpreted and translated into universal and Western signs and symbols _ nonetheless, some pieces are not included in this homecoming exhibition, namely those with religious implications.
Meanwhile, the thematic message is extrapolated into the realm of the subconscious. Most paintings resemble pictures taken from dreams where anything can happen and subjects can be convened without logical structure or support. In this project, it seems that the owner of the dream is deeply intrigued with biological autopsy and post-industrial warfare.
Natee still retains two distinctions of his past oeuvre: crisp, clear lining and brushstrokes (in terms of rendition) and internal communication (in terms of the motif). The first offers a kind of graphic vanity, while the second signifies the intellectual sophistication. To decode the portrayals of personal objects _ such as the DVD case of John Berger's The Way Of Seeing and V.C. Andrews' novel Garden Of Shadows, topped by skinless lower jaw of a human _ viewers needs to create a new encoding association by themselves.
In terms of viewing aesthetics, nothing distracts the visual encountering. The colouring of the walls, the well-selected wood-carved frames and the eclectic feature of the paintings themselves _ all of these render an atmosphere of a solemn room in a European art museum filled with classical figurative paintings.
The space of Bangkok University Gallery fits the instalment of Natee's canvases. All walls are newly repainted to create a proper optical encapsulation. Placing and arrangement of all works are finely contemplated to create an efficient visual dialogue. While the room on the second floor caters to his large- and medium-sized works, the fourth floor has the smaller ones. Nothing to complain about except a few stains on the floors (probably left from previous projects) and the lack of reading materials from previous exhibits to educate the locals, especially the young ones so they can find out more about the artist.
Natee can be a model of how a professional artist should be: he clearly sets the stage of his own progression and management. Unfortunately, his local recognition is pretty limited. Definitely, Thawan Duchanee and Thavorn Ko-Udomvit set the precedent in exposing works from Thai artists to European and Japan audiences. But Natee exemplifies the contemporary scenarios. His achievement truly comes from his working discipline _ not from his image or his persona. This reviewer hopes that one day art lovers here will be able to see a full retrospective programme of his work in Bangkok, and maybe a book to celebrate his mid-career stage in Thai language. Singapore has done that, in English, and it's a shame that we still haven't.
Natee Utarit's "Illustration Of The Crisis" will be on display at Bangkok University Gallery until Aug 31. The venue is located on the 2nd and 4th floors of a building on the city campus in Kluai Nam Thai area, on Rama IV. It is open Tuesday to Saturday, 10am-7pm. Call 02-350-3626 or visit www.facebook.com/bangkokuniversitygallery
About the author
- Writer: Pattara Danutra