An Exhibition of Five Contemporary Thai Artistsby Karen Demaviva
Planet Thailand Restaurant
The Planet Thailand restaurant has not only played host to many a dining guest in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, it also happens to actively support artists of all backgrounds. No, not by shoveling pad thai into their mouths, but by offering their art work a place to breathe within the restaurant’s cavernous space. Fittingly enough, the most recent exhibition was a show of contemporary art by both Thai and Thai-American artists. The exhibition’s aim was to offer constructive visibility to a part of the community that is mostly known for the numerous Thai restaurants dotting the area.
Chanika Svetvilas’s “Suitcase Series” does not urge us to pack up our bags and jet off to foreign lands. The suitcases are installed on shelves as stationary objects that ask us to take our time and think about their ubiquitous position in our increasingly nomadic lives. Square holes are cut out of the center of the front-facing side of these suitcases. The hole, which allows the viewer to peep into the interior of each suitcase, is fitted with a square frame and glass panel, through which contents beyond underwear and toothpaste unfold. One of the suitcases beckons with “Welcome,” the letters underlining the peep hole above it, reminiscent of an embroidered mat at the door of any rustic or suburban American home. However, as you peer into the framed glass panel, the ambivalent text “Foreigner” plastered on a mirror confronts you, labeling your reflected face. Suddenly, rather than feeling welcomed, you feel alienated. In light of current U.S. policies unjustly cracking down on immigrants from the non-Western world, Chanika’s suitcase seems to be questioning the present hypocrisy of “the land of the free,” a land supposedly open for all.
Prawat Laucharoen’s print installation “After We Become New Industrial Country” reflects upon the unfulfilled desires of a developing Thai nationhood which rose and crashed all too quickly in the past decade. With an unfinished dresser hung upside down from the ceiling and its floral pencil traces left uncarved, Prawat comments on the failure of industry and Thai society’s loss of identity in light of modernization. The mirror of the dresser parallels Chanika’s “Welcome” suitcase in its critical reflection of the viewer and the outside world. Covering the walls behind the dresser are color rubbings on large paper sheets of tropical plants in various shades of green. One is an image of banana leaves wavering, darting in and out of sight, against what might be the unseen forces of torrential wind and rain. These renderings are traces—outlines of white cutting into gestural strokes of color—of vital living forms. At the same time, the forms themselves have unrealized energies of their own, parallel to Thailand’s inhibited potential.
Sujin Wattanawonchai embraces his urban surroundings through the use of found material: namely, those ever essential New York City Metrocards (fare hikes or not). His abstract paintings give way to specific rather than universal contexts. For example, his work “Brooklyn/NY” offers a personal vision of his current environment. While at first it reminded me of a computer chip, the title opened me up to a bird’s eye view of a city grid, the very expanse that a subway rider traverses. Sujin is fascinated with the experiences that the former owners had with these cards—where did their journeys lead them?—and he references their dynamic movements in the energy of his brushstrokes. The painting, along with the other two works in the show, consists of straight columns of Metrocards covering the entire surface of the canvas. In turn, strokes of oil paint create dizzying patterns over them. In the painting’s intense opticality, the orange and yellow specks in between these lines seem to blink like city lights from a distance.
Skowmon Hastanan, in collaboration with Jeff Gottesfeld, presents an equally optical piece, entitled “A Prince’s Palace III.” Unlike Sujin’s use of bold color, however, Skowmon chose the more subdued palette of traditional Thai painting, such as salmon, olive, and beige. The inkjet composition offers up a harmonious geometric, frontal view of a palace, which is repeated 36 times over the expanse of the canvas. While the work is very graphic, in keeping with Gottesfeld’s designer sensibility, Skowmon leaps beyond formal aesthetics. She aims to unsettle the stylized serenity of conventional Thai painting by injecting images outside its traditional iconography. One is a three-quarter profile of a white, buxom Playboy centerfold, framed by the architecture. This vision of depravity faces a vision of innocence: a little Thai girl with a tentative smile similarly boxed in. The pale form of the girl is in stark contrast with the fleshy appearance of the centerfold, which charges the surroundings with a restrained sexual energy. Crouching outside the palace complex are ominous blue mythical beasts from the Ramayana. Skowmon’s feminist perspective may lead us to view the palace compound as an oppressive masculine structure, in a traditional as well as contemporary sense, which reflects the patriarchal world. The palace walls, in turn, imprison these feminine figures in their polar opposite, but equally exploited roles.
Top Changtrakul’s “Theory 59” is a delightfully chaotic work. A piece of brown wrapping paper is pinned up to the wall by tacks, its irregular edges roughly taped up here and there like battle scars. On this “canvas,” yellow measuring tape divides the composition into a rigid grid, echoing Sujin’s compositions. However, this sense of order seems to be negated by the arbitrary lines, letters, and scribbles scrawled over the entire surface of the grid. The use of mundane materials in the work lends it a do-it-yourself feel. Top conceived of the composition through his boredom with staring at a periodic table; the result is a work that takes off from its dull origin toward a joyous escalation in its combination of lines, shapes, and colors.
The show did not have an official curatorial theme beyond the fact that all the artists are of Thai ethnicity. They all exhibit their own Thai sensibility as individuals and I am not in a position to generalize. Nonetheless, some parallels in formal process and an engagement with the viewer and the outside world, from the overtly political to the commonplace, seem to link all of them together. It is, indeed, a compelling show and worth a visit to the Planet Thailand restaurant beyond the call of a good appetite.