ANU KAMAR ON CHAVALIT SOEMPRUNGSUK’S EXHIBITION: ‘BACK TO NATURE AT 60.’
The autumn of an artist’s life, as in nature, is always more resplendent and rich than any other phase. You see colors and shades you did not know existed. And Chavalit Soemprungsuk’s exhibition, ‘Back to Nature at 60,’ is case in point.
Chavalit turned 60 on July 30, a little more than a week after the opening of his exhibition in Marsri Gallery. And the show comprising 54 works, most of which were executed on the computer, a tool he started using over a year ago, is significant because of Chavalit’s age. His age, he says, has brought him freedom that no burning passion of youth could have. “Now, I don’t care any more what people think of my work. I do exactly what I want.”
In a sense, the title, ‘Back to Nature’ isn’t right because he never really stopped painting nature. He only censored those works not allowing them to reach the gallery. “I kept with the fundamental abstracts and constructivism and did not show the figurative images because like any young artist, I wanted people to like my work, wanted to establish a certain style immediately recognizable as my own.”
But the opinions of other people are a heavy burden to carry and an unnecessary one. Now Chavalit has shed it, “his friends” as he calls them, people in the gallery. As you walk around, figurative works, paintings of dogs and cats, appear at regular intervals. And even if they are not actually present in the work, they are there in spirit as in ‘Dog’s Best Friend,’ two skeletons, one black and one white, represent men of different races but a difference not perceived by a dog. “A dog loves his master unconditionally, whether he is wrong or right, black or white. Something humans can never do,” says Chavalit. A humorous painting with dogs is the ‘Last Kiss of the Century’ where two dogs are about to kiss to mark a momentous occasion – a way of saying that canines are not less important than humans.
A very well executed work is ‘Jesus Christ on Bicycle.’ In shades of grey and ochre, a group of eight people on bicycles stand in front of a wall with two circles high above on it. “Everybody in Amsterdam rides bicycles. So I thought even God would come to them riding a bicycle. After all he is just like us. He would not come in a BMW or something,’ says Chavalit. The two circles signify the wheels of Jesus’ cycle.
What makes this show work is the sense of profound playfulness and a feeling that the artist has had a lot of fun doing these works. Paintings like ‘Gone with the Egg,’ and ‘Dutch Egg’ contain a hidden joke put in there purely for Chavalit’s enjoyment which the audience might not get. But the black humor of ‘Holiday in Bangkok’ is very obvious. It shows a skeleton, perhaps crossing a street, with grey fumes hanging over his head. Chavalit cannot understand why people would come to holiday in a city so filled with pollution and poison. Partly the reason he left Thailand in 1963 for the more peaceful and picturesque Amsterdam when he was granted a fellowship by the Netherland’s government – the first artist ever to receive one. He is perhaps the only Thai artist who has received international acclaim.
Another attractive work is among the smaller ones – four black cats painted in playful poses on a beige sheet filled with computer gibberish – the numbers and symbols that skid across the screen every time something goes wrong with the machine. It is a light enjoyable work where you are not supposed to delight in it. The above work, like quite a few in this show, has also been executed on the computer. And Chavalit’s proficiency at getting just the effects he wants out of the software is quite commendable, especially considering that most people his age are baffled by this machine. Chavalit says that when he started using the computer (he usually works with software packages like Painter 5 and Photoshop 4), the machine would make him mad. “I would get really angry because I knew nothing about the computer. I was learning on my own and I would go on making mistakes. But I never give up, so I would work for 10 hours on it everyday till I conquered it. Now of course it is very easy.”
Chavalit says that the colors he uses have changed in the past couple of years. He is slowly abandoning bright shades for somber khakis, beiges, greys and browns. But there are still flashes of blazing reds and blues, particularly in ‘Hot Stupa,’ a work where a silhouette of a stupa is painted on the entire surface of the canvas with blue and yellow filling the sides. It is a comment on the scandal-riddled Buddhist order in Bangkok and the red signifies the anger against corruption. Red rises again in a small untitled work of a contour of a breast. It signifies toxicity of the source of life when death is passed into the baby either because the mother drinks, does drugs or has AIDS.
The trouble with these ‘red’ works is that they lack strength. While they were born out of genuine concerns of Chavalit’s, the metaphor of red to signify anger and poison is too simplistic and neither do these works have the high quality that others have.
What is interesting here though is that we actually get to see these works because of Chavalit’s decision to show all. This exhibition is like a vivisection of an artist’s mind at work – the good and the not so good – both are shown. Anais Nin wrote in her diary about a conversation she had with Henry Miller about literature. “We talked about literature’s elimination of the unessential, so that we are given a concentrated “dose” of life and “that’s the danger of it. It prepares you to live but it also exposes you to disappointments because it gives a heightened concept of living. It leaves out the dull or stagnant moments.”
The same can be said for art. Usually exhibitions are tightly controlled shows where only the choicest pieces are revealed so that the audience can grasp and shake hands in admiration. But in Chavalit’s show there is no effort to garner applause. He says he doesn’t bother with opinions any more and only seeks to enjoy work. He’s had too successful a career to need reassurance from others about how good he is. He knows it.