Udomsak Krisanamis manages to see art, Buddhism, his life – and golf – wrapped up together. The Bangkok-born 50-year-old, now a resident of Chiang Mai, made a name for himself in the New York art scene in the early 1990s but is less known in his homeland and rarely exhibits his work here.
Not that there would be many buyers in Thailand – his abstract paintings fetch the equivalent of Bt1 million. But they feature in the prestigious collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Walker and the Albright-Knox in the US and the Cartier gallery of contemporary art in Paris.
Udomsak’s local profile is rising, however, with his fellow artist Rirkrit Tiravanija curating a show titled “Paint It Black” at his Gallery Ver in Bangkok and a concurrent “Retrospective” at the Chiang Mai University Art Museum.
Gallery Ver’s solo show is Udomsak’s first in Thailand in a decade. “Not many people have seen my work in Thailand,” he admits. But the exhibition up North is perhaps the more interesting of the two because it entails reproductions by a dozen young artists in Chiang Mai of pieces that were sold privately overseas and are thus tricky to have shipped here.
The red and white walls of the Art Museum have more than 20 paintings that, with the installations they surround, chronicle Udomsak’s creative life since 1989. He studied and worked in New York from 1990 to 2008 and has been in Chiang Mai since 2009. The originals of every single piece found buyers in the West.
“It would have been very complicated to ship the originals to Chiang Mai and our time was very limited, so we asked younger artists to recreate them,” says Udomsak, who seems pleased with the results.
This retrospective is much more narrative than his previous shows, and conceptually comprises one huge installation, with white dots on the wall guiding the viewer along step by step. “The red wall is itself a giant painting that makes everything a single whole,” he says.
The artist’s handwritten notes about themes and inspirations accompany each piece, a change from the usual practice of listing just title and medium, which forces viewers to draw their own interpretations of sometimes complicated abstract works. Here they’re allowed into the thought process with memories, song lyrics and poems, sometimes sad, sometimes cheerful.
“The text becomes part of the work,” Udomsak says. “I wrote all of it except for the Emily Dickinson poems, a story from my favourite golf book by Timothy O’Grady and some quotes I found online.”
What’s this about golf? “Playing golf makes me happy, the same as making art!” he explains. Fair enough.
Udomsak has long used collage, adding shards of newspaper, noodles and cellophane to the paint. “Long Life None Senses” features rice noodles, wire and nails. “Art isn’t necessarily produced by skilful workmanship, profound elements or superfluous materials,” he’s scrawled on the wall next to it in pencil.
“More importantly, art is not a supernatural thing that ordinary people find hard to understand. My work is made of whatever I have in my life.”
“Creative work,” he avers elsewhere, “should be produced in accordance with full emotion and feeling, in both the elements and the expression.
“The paintings and mixed-media pieces in this exhibition utilise objects found nearby, such as steel, wood, plastic, cloth, plant life, food and other scraps. These things seem to have in them my own memories and close relationships. They are the sources of my creative inspiration.”
In the earlier paintings done in New York, densely layered and textured grids resemble stellar landscapes, satellite imagery, twinkling cityscapes and blinking digital universes. His work shifts between the worldly and otherworldly, the sublime and the everyday.
Udomsak came out of Chulalongkorn University and studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, as did Rirkrit. He found living and working in different cultures and art scenes difficult. “More than anything
I learned how to survive under pressure and to be patient,” he says.
And yet, while for most contemporary artists, getting a toehold in New York during early 1990s was next to impossible, Udomsak breezed in.
“For me it was much easier,” he says. “I had my first solo show in my own tiny apartment. [Painter] Elizabeth Peyton saw it and told Gavin Brown [the gallery owner who made her a star], so I took all my paintings on the subway to show Gavin Brown, and that’s how it began.”
When he migrated to Chiang Mai in 2009 he rented the traditional Lanna-style wooden house seen in the small monochrome painting “Untitled”. “I could be closer to my parents, but I prefer somewhere other than Bangkok,’ he says. “Chiang Mai is perfect if you want to raise a family – it has everything.”
You can see “a slice of life” from Udomsak’s studio there in the installation “Poppong”, with its table loaded with the tools of the trade, a black-and-white photo on the wall and records playing on the turntable.
Surprisingly, Udomsak says there is no difference between the art scenes in Chiang Mai and New York “except Chiang Mai is so pretty and slow and you can get lazy very easily!”
In his more recent work on view in Chiang Mai, intricate detail is replaced by bold statements in dazzling but monochrome hues, the surfaces built up with layers of found material.
Rirkrit’s Gallery Ver is in contrast dominated by large paintings in black, white and blue done this year. The show’s title, “Paint It Black”, is borrowed from the Rolling Stones, whose song of the same name is a lament on bleakness and depression.
“I had a blast making these, even though I’d been through some tough times,” Udomsak says, “but that’s life. What you see at Ver, though, is the result of what came before.”
White loops appear on black or blue canvas. One bears the phrase “Golf, Eat, Sleep and Repeat”.
Glimpses of the spiritual void become evident, a Buddhist theme emerging, as it also did when he was working in the US. “For me, nothingness in both art and Buddhism mean peacefulness,” he says.
TWO SHOWS TO SEE
- Udomsak Krisanamis’ exhibition “Paint It Black” at Gallery Ver in Bangkok and “Retrospective” at the Chiang Mai University Art Museum continue through July 31.
- Find out more on the “GalleryVer” Facebook page.