NATEE UTARIT (b. 1970)
signed, dated, and inscribed 'Natee Utarit 12/Illustration of the Crisis' (on the reverse)
oil on linen
160 x 140 cm. (63 x 55 1/8 in.)
Painted in 2012
Richard Koh Fine Art, Natee Utarit: Illustration of the Crisis, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 2010 (illustrated, p. 192).
Bangkok, Thailand, Bangkok University Gallery, Illustration of the Crisis, 18 July - 31 August 2013.
Berlin, Germany, Arndt Berlin, Illustration of the Crisis, 12 September - 17 October 2012

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Lot Essay

The narrative depth and striking visual language of Natee Utartit's paintings have made him one of the most compelling artists working out of Southeast Asia in recent years. The works that comprise the Illustration of the Crisis series (2010-2012) have been regarded as the most artistically and conceptually developed in his oeuvre, and present an exceptional balance of painterly technique, distinctive style, and originality.

Drawing on the classical practice of still life painting, Utarit brings together disparate objects from his collection of curious to stage the surreal scenes which are then reflected in his paintings. Like a cabinet of curiosities, Utarit's paintings reveal an accumulation of found objects from model toys to anatomical models of skeletons and teeth. For Utarit, objects hold the power of symbolism and reference. By modifying and combining different objects, he works with the rules of language to produce variations of meaning in the pictorial language of his paintings. For example, the recurrence of both human and animal bones when combined with motifs such as toy soldiers or female dolls with their backs turned to the viewer, a Buddha's head on its side, or a maquette of a headless angel, teases us with the complexity underlying these signifiers. A master of evoking drama and atmosphere through a control of light and shadow worthy of Caravaggio, and imbuing his canvasses with a multiplicity of meaning akin to Hans Holbein, Utarit combines the spirit and ideals of Classicism with modern tenets of surrealism to fashion his own unique mode of artistic expression.

While the Crisis series of works can be understood as a reference for the socio-political crisis that shaped the landscape of Thailand during the period of the mid-2000s, Utarit looks to focus on the internal crisis of the self. The crisis of the self lies in the essential inability to define or articulate modern-day feelings of uncertainty and anxiety that are symptomatic of wider social happenings. Addressing the insufficiencies of language to express and capture the intangibility of emotion and experience, Utarit's art draws on the structures of language to instead illustrate this crisis of the internal.

The distinguishing feature of Utarit's work is the pervading atmosphere of the uncanny that is found in the eerie stillness of his canvasses. The undercurrents of tension and anxiety within the works culminate in an exquisite juxtaposition of abundance and lack. The precision of Utarit's technique and the undeniable elegance of his compositions are disrupted by a discomfiting placement of the familiar with the unfamiliar, and a distortion of the order of things.

In Candle Light, Utarit brings together a strange collection of objects - a figurine, a pair of slippers, a shoe brush, and a collection of bones. With deftness and subtlety, Utarit opens up a series of questions without answers - allowing for a characteristic openness and ambiguity in the interpretation of his work. Upon closer inspection, the figurine which appears to have the intended function as a decorative candle holder is depicted here conspicuously without a candle. Lacking its main distinguishing feature, the posture of the figurine assumes one of servitude. In a tangle in the centre of the painting lies a pair of intricately embroidered slippers coloured in rich yellow - the colour associated with the Thai king. A brush for buffing leather shoes appears clean and unused, and seems out of place beside the cloth slippers. The collection of bones, elegantly arranged, and magnificent in their pure white colour, frame the other objects, and bring them together within a classical composition of triangular order.

Within Utarit's work, the inclusion of bones suggest a stripping away of surfaces to reveal an underlying truth or reality, while also referencing ideas of memory and history as in archaeology. Candle Light surfaces questions about the confrontation between tradition and modernity, the archaic nature of monarchical rule, and a simultaneous acknowledgement of its undeniable unifying force.

A graduate from the Slipakorn University in Bangkok, where he took an equal interest in classical art of the renaissance as well as theories of postmodernism, Natee Utarit's works have been exhibited in Berlin, Switzerland, Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines. The popularity of his work across Europe and Asia can be traced to the visual impact, as well as complexity of his work.

Meaning in Utarit's work is not found through a process of decoding, but through assembling and disassembling associations. Enlightenment occurs not in the presence of flickering candlelight, but under conditions of clarity and a stark consideration of the structures that maintain order. Still, with his back turned toward us, the metal figurine continues to ask the unanswerable question of what continues to remains unseen.


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