"Much of my work deals with various aspects of truth and illusion and their complex interplay with the nature of beauty, dreams, hopes and perfection. Any attempt to portray and posit suppositions about the nature of reality, given the complexities of the world around us, is a matter of trial (and) error and requires a search for the new kind of grammar in the language of painting." (Natee Utarit, The Fragment and the Sublime, exhibition pamphlet, Valentine Willie Fine Art, July 2006.)
Natee Utarit has been widely acknowledged and respected as producing some of the most visually striking and compelling contemporary art in Southeast Asia in recent years. A graduate from the Silpakorn University in Bangkok, where he took an equal interest in classical art of the renaissance as well as theories of postmodernism, his works have been exhibited in Berlin, Switzerland, Southeast Asia, Taiwan and China.
Most characteristic of Utarit’s work is the complexity of meaning of his work, juxtaposed with the visual simplicity of its appearance. The artist references the classical Western still life form, updating it by filling it with objects and symbols that reference his current socio-political landscape, situating them in an often large, minimalist background that provides little context. In doing so, Utarit infuses the spirit and ideals of classicism with a contemporary surrealism. Utarit’s paintings are also critical representations of painting as a form of expression, as he challenges the viewer’s notions of what a painting should constitute, look like, and the message it should contain. The contrast of the familiar western format with the contemporary content of his work creates a sense of displacement, a compelling and striking strangeness that gives his paintings a sense of the surreal. This uncanny sensation works with his use of objective representation of recognisable cultural signifiers and evocations of memory to create pared down visual metaphors. What is fascinating about his art is also the additional juxtaposition of the apolitical appearance the subjects of his paintings – nostalgic or curious objects from our daily lives – with the fact that the paintings are charged with socio-political critiques.
Utarit’s paintings are staged compositions made up of curious found objects, toys and anatomical models. The items featured have rich symbolic meaning, and serve as a conduit for the artist to weave associations and learned ideas from our present society together, to form his critique of the contemporary Thai socio-political landscape. The artist said that his use of conventional, recognizable imagery allows him to reference and replicate the complexity of contemporary society. The use of toys recalls a nostalgia for childhood innocence, adding a veneer of comfortable familiarity to his pictures. However, in painting them against a void-like background, he creates a clinical, silent and still composition, prompting a quiet sense of surreal disorder that encourages closer viewing and deeper contemplation. A technically skilled painter, Utarit manipulates light and shadow effectively to imbue his work with high visual drama.
Part of 'The Amusement of Dreams, Hopes and Perfection series,' Comedy applies Utarit’s familiar aesthetic with the toy animals in the foreground and a simple, yet curious background of red concert curtain. Lit from the left of the painting, the group of animals stare blankly ahead of them, and there is a sense of the suspension of time, as if we have caught them about to move, or waiting to move.
Despite the animals being positioned in the same general direction, the positions of the heads and gazes of each creature seems to be unique in this group portrait, recalling the style of portraiture invented in the Netherlands during the northern renaissance. The early form of Dutch portraiture was the first of its time to acknowledge each person in a group portrait as unique individuals. In the same way, Utarit gives each animal an individual consciousness, setting them apart from each other despite the fact that they are plastic models. This juxtaposition, enhanced by the strangeness of their environment, creates a surreal, almost dream-like image that encourages viewers’ imaginations.
The species included are a mix within each category: there are two geese and a rooster within the birds present, and two cows and a goat within the four legged creatures. All of these are farm animals bred and kept for human consumption, bringing to mind ideas of domesticity, fertility, agricultural plenty and cultivation. By placing animal figures in the context of theatre, Utarit also personifies the animals, associating them with human qualities. This particular collection of farm animals recalls political texts such as Animal Farm by George Orwell, and the story The Bremen Town Musicians, both of which involve animals overthrowing their cruel human overlords and attempting to win a better lives for themselves as larger political critiques of their society.
Political undertones bubble beneath the surface of a composition that brings to mind a peaceful demonstration or gathering, at the moment just before a curtain is about to be raised. The use of inanimate toy animals increases the sense of farce and irony when juxtaposed with the grand theatre, and reveals Utarit’s fundamental critique of the theatricality and inefficiency of Thai political leadership. With his paintings, Utarit questions the memories and social realities of modern Thai society, including its identities, beliefs and political landscape.
Using his fine technique to render an elegant composition, Utarit creates a pleasing image that while at first appearing innocent, slowly reveals a deeply surreal irony which highlights a critique of his society that stops short of being didactic.