"[It] represents a situation where the desirability of an object, or the image of an object, supersedes any other prior significance." - Natee Utarit, Dreams, Hope and Perfection
The narrative depth and striking visual language of Natee Utarit's paintings have made him one of the most compelling artists working out of Southeast Asia in recent years. Widely acknowledged and respected as one of the most visually striking and compelling contemporary Southeast Asian artists in recent years, Natee was 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 post-modernism. Exhibiting widely in Europe, Southeast Asia, Taiwan and China, he has been collected extensively by private collectors and institutions.
The popularity of his works across Europe and Asia can be traced to the visual impact and complexity of his art. The pictorial language of his paintings created not only references Western art history, but also makes veiled references and commentary on Thai contemporary society, exploring ideas of identity, truth, beauty and culture. Natee’s paintings have always been seen as a form of critical representation of contemporary Southeast Asian art by critically examining the medium of painting, and have been regarded as highly artistically and conceptually developed, and present an exceptional balance of painterly technique, distinctive style, and originality.
Emerging within the last several years as an emblematic voice of contemporary Thai society, Natee Utarit's pictorial language navigates the tensions arising between objective representation, cultural significance, and the loci of memory. His work often appears aphasic; the lack of tangible dynamism or coherent dialogic form means that interpretation often has to be sought within the most basic constructs of his pared-down visual metaphors.
Drawing on the classical practice of still life painting, Natee brings together disparate objects from his collection of curios to stage the surreal scenes which are then reflected in his paintings. Like a cabinet of curiosities, the paintings reveal an accumulation of found objects from model toys to anatomical models of skeletons and teeth. For the artist, 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. 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, he combines the spirit and ideals of Classicism with modern tenets of surrealism to fashion his own unique mode of artistic expression.
The current Lot, Steamboat Overture was part of the Amusement, Dreams, Hopes and Perfection series which was painted from 2006-2008. Taking on the concept of painting still-life pictures but transforming them to his own unique and visual pictorial language, Natee makes veiled commentaries about social and political issues and discusses the myth of Thai identity, beliefs and political issues after the coup d’état in Thailand in 2006. Painting from within, the works of Natee during this period have a gestural degree of story-telling while subtly probing and exploring the social realities of modern Thai society of the times.
Steamboat Overture discusses as well the era of transition in old Siam during the reign of King Rama IV, which occurred at the same time as the advent of widespread colonialism in the different countries in Southeast Asia. The steamboat in the painting alludes symbolically to Western civilization and technology, back then a new and arguably foreboding presence and representation of western culture. It brings with it development, industrialization and the dawn of a new age, yet undermining and creating tensions with present day social and political realities disappointing from what seemed promised as well as the dissolution of Thai local culture. The geese in the painting symbolize and present a sense of curiosity, carefulness and fear of society in Siam towards its new colonial surroundings.
The painting is linked as well to another previous painting done in the same series, (fig.2 The Western Light No. 1), which portrays King Rama V, who is revered as the first Thai monarch to lead the country towards modernism, yet ensured the country maintained independence from colonial powers. The painting however is painted with an ominous dark palette differing from the original monument, suggesting a differing from present day realities to the promised destiny.
Natee’s art creates the inference of socio-political resonances, while remaining fundamentally apolitical in shape and construct. The distinguishing feature of his work is the pervading atmosphere of the uncanny that is found in the eerie stillness of his canvases. The undercurrents of tension and anxiety within the works culminate in an exquisite juxtaposition of abundance and meaning. The precision of Natee’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.