Innocence is Overrated

Innocence is Overrated
signed ‘Natee Utarit’, dated ‘12’ and inscribed ‘Optimism is Ridiculous’ (on the reverse)
oil on linen in the artist's original frame
180 x 160 cm. (70 7/8 x 63 in.)
Painted in 2012
Private Collection, Asia
Richard Koh Fine Art, Optimism is Ridiculous, exh. cat., Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Malaysia, 2013 (illustrated)
Demetrio Paparoni, Skira editore S.p.A., Optimism is Ridiculous Milan, Italy, 2017 (illustrated,p. 165)

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Kimmy Lau
Kimmy Lau

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Lot Essay

Two glassy-eyed pheasants gaze out from Natee Utarit’s painting, their dusky brown bodies complemented by dramatic chin and tail feathers that give them a vaguely aristocratic air. The lighting is dramatic and mysterious: the pheasants are lit from the right, and have been placed against a dark, curtained background. But as our eyes adjust, it becomes possible to make out a bicorn hat – of the type associated with Napoleon the Conqueror – tucked behind the pair, while to the left a desk lamp extends off beyond the edge of the picture frame. A phrase can be glimpsed on the strip of paper that curls at the pheasants’ feet, and it is the same phrase that has been carved around the painting’s custom-made frame, indicating the title of the work: Innocence is Overrated.

This painting is part of the Optimism is Ridiculous series, created by Thai artist Natee Utarit between 2013 and 2016. The series explores still-life, portraits, and altarpieces as subjects, blending stylistic influences drawn from European Old Master painting with the artist’s idiosyncratic eye and contemporary sense of humour. Utarit builds off his earlier Illustration of the Crisis series, in which he depicted bright toys, anatomy models and household objects arranged in intriguing compositions. Yet the present series is much more classical in style than earlier works, paying direct homage to Dutch still life painting and European masters such as Hans Holbein and Georges De La Tour. The plastic toys and bright colours that characterized his earlier pieces have all disappeared, replaced by taxidermy animals and darker shades of sepia and umber.

Natee Utarit has always felt drawn to historical Western paintings. He states that after years of studying their techniques and imagery, “I eventually discovered that what gave these old works of art their lasting value wasn’t just the result of the artists’ skill or the manner of expression. It was something much harder to explain - something intangible. It was a feeling that radiated within and around the paintings themselves.” Rather than paint abstractions, Utarit chooses to paint objects in the style of the European historical tradition, creating rich, complex paintings that depict people and objects in thought-provoking arrangements.

Taxidermy animals play a particularly prominent role in the Optimism Series, suggestively straddling the border between life and death – a vanitas painting reminding us of the inevitability of death. In an interview, the artist stated that, “My paintings always feature animals. Just as in literature and other forms of art, these animals are meant to stand in for various human behaviours, thoughts, and emotions.” In the present work, the birds are brown eared-pheasants, a species that lives primarily in Northern China. Because Utarit prefers painting from life, to create his compositions he collects taxidermized animals and other props from flea markets and purveyors throughout Europe, and arranges them into meticulously staged scenes in his Bangkok studio.

Utarit rarely specifies how his compositions are created, instead saying that “the simple fact that something has been chosen to appear in the painting is reason enough for it to be there.” Yet his decision to use distinctively European objects in this series of works alludes to his own identity as a non-Western artist. Utarit has stated that the pheasants and the hat in Innocence is Overrated are a reference to the high societal noblemen and women that always appear in classical European painting. Perhaps the pheasants’ ridiculous chin feathers are meant to mock the facial hair that appears on the sitters of so many European paintings. In this vein, there is a degree of irony in the fact that a Thai artist – from a country that prides itself on never having been colonized by the West – is now choosing to co-opt the painting style of former would-be colonizers, a nod to postcolonial sentiments in the region.

Stylistically, Innocence is Overrated beautifully showcases Utarit’s distinctive painting style. Different areas of colour are cleanly divided and filled in section by section, and he paints with smooth, well-blended brushstrokes that leave little evidence of the artist’s hand. Unnecessary texture and detail is erased, resulting in a clean, almost clinical work of art, and as a result, the objects in his paintings appear vaguely dream-like, enhancing their symbolic properties. Utarit’s careful control of lighting also adds a sense of drama and mystery to grouping that might otherwise come off as nondescript. The scene is illuminated by an unknown light source, and the resulting chiaroscuro brings the pheasants into sharp focus, forcing us to look closely if we are to decipher the objects in the background.

In Innocence is Overrated, the arrangement of objects in this work strikes a balance between constructed and spontaneous; it feels like a collection from a bygone age, perhaps items that were scattered on the desk of some eccentric scholar, but the composition also feels deliberate, and vaguely artificial. We question why the objects are arranged in this way, but even careful study reveals no clear answers. As viewers, we are left to ponder the cynical meaning of the title, how it relates to the objects presented to us, and whether there is a lesson that the artist is imparting upon us.

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