CHATCHAI PUIPIASunflowers, 1996. Oil pigments, wax, ash (paper/wood) and gold leaf on canvas, 229.5 × 200 cm. Courtesy 100 Tonson Gallery, Bangkok.

Sites of Solitude – Still-Life, Self-Portraiture and the Living Archive

Chatchai Puipia

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

In 1995, Chatchai Puipia painted a luridly hued, maniacally grimacing visage, Siamese Smile, which soon became the foremost icon of Southeast Asian contemporary art. Since then, Chatchai has become known for his mocking self-portraits, numbering among the dozen or so artists of his generation to pioneer Thailand’s cultural transition from modernist to contemporary art. 

Lesser known is the part of his practice devoted to still-life flower paintings, often interpretations of iconic works by modern masters such as Van Gogh, Redon and Cezanne. Done between 1996 and 2011, these paintings were at the center of “Chatchai Puipia: Sites of Solitude – Still-Life, Self-Portraiture and the Living Archive”—a curatorially ambitious show produced in a collaboration between Bangkok’s 100 Tonson Gallery and the Thai Art Archives.

Eight of the 14 canvases exhibited are from Chatchai’s still-life series painted “after modern masters.” As curator Gregory Galligan explains in the exhibition catalog, Chatchai began this series with Sunflowers (1996), a rendition of Van Gogh’s 1888 masterpiece of the same subject. Painting the blossoms in a monochrome silhouette, using ash against a gold-leaf background and layering wax onto the canvas, the artist’s intent was to question what happens to art in the marketplace: he transformed the richly aesthetic original into something like a Byzantine icon, shorn of color gradations and depth.

From 2005 onward, Chatchai produced more of these interpretive paintings, but with the added purpose of exploring the aesthetic qualities of light and shadow, inspired by Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki’s 1935 essay, “In Praise of Shadows.” An example is Hollyhocks in Red Pot (2006–09), done after Van Gogh’s 1886 painting Vase of Hollyhocks.

Aside from capturing the fleeting effects of light, Chatchai created each still life to convey his interpretation of a particular friend’s psychology (though how this latter aim was achieved was not addressed in the exhibition catalog). The show did, however, allow viewers a closer look at the works’ details, such as words written in relief paint on some of the canvases, including lyrics from Chatchai’s favorite Thai country ballads. 

Elements of his interpretive still lifes, including the words in relief, also feature in three recent self-portraits that rounded out the show. Whereas his earlier self-portraits are impish, satirical, loosely composed and painted in red, yellow and orange, the new works are nearly monochromatic, featuring a simpler compositional structure and a somber, balanced tone. They introduce the butterfly as a new motif, inspired by those fatally attracted to the toxic paints in the artist’s studio. 

In 03:15 a.m., 16-05-2014 (2014), the artist’s face in profile is surrounded by red-haloed butterflies and a trumpeting elephant’s head. The date in the title refers to a moment during Bangkok’s turbulent anti-government protests, just days before the Thai military seized power. Galligan sees these portraits as evidence that Chatchai is at his peak of mastery and transcendence, following five years spent in near solitude, after theatrically announcing his leave from the art world in 2010. 

The show was part of a larger project with the Thai Art Archives that also resulted in a digital database of Chatchai’s work and a publication of his biography. At 100 Tonson, a vitrine displayed personal ephemera such as photos, postcards and catalogs from his studio, revealing that the ever-brooding Chatchai is a fan of 19th-century European and American coming-of-age novels like Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).

The exhibition also provided a rare glimpse at three works from the 1980s that reveal Chatchai’s artistic beginnings, when he was developing his own approach to modernist styles such as photorealism, abstract expressionism and assemblage. It appears that his skills were already strong then, and that even after he moved on to figuration and portraiture, he continued to draw on previously learned lessons.

By presenting works of different periods and types side-by-side, along with astute commentary, the show traced Chatchai’s working processes and conceptual development in an effective way. The show’s strong rationale and focus provided a good example of how independent initiatives, organized by galleries, nonprofits and individuals, are making curatorial sense of Thailand’s art and its development, filling the gap left by the absence of a national museum devoted to contemporary art.