If you think some of the paintings at the Optimism Is Ridiculous: Paintings On Figure Of Speech, Paradoxes And Inward Journey exhibition look familiar, it might be because you have seen something similar before, albeit in a different form.

Many of the works on display at the National Visual Arts Gallery (NVAG) in Kuala Lumpur echo the classical paintings, for instance, a docile lamb sitting pretty on a red cloth draws inspiration from French painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’s Grande Odalisque from 1814, which depicts a reclining nude.

Another painting has a deer looking quite unperturbed by the fact that it has been shot by a hail of arrows.

Its reference? The 15th century Saint Sebastian paintings by Italian painter Andrea Mantegna, where the saint is portrayed with his hands tied behind his back, arrows sticking out of him in all directions.

The exhibition is a collaboration between the NVAG and KL’s Richard Koh Fine Art.

“All the works here present ideas inspired by a colonial worldview interpretation and parody, through animals and ridiculous circumstances, in an atmosphere of classical Baroque and Romantic paintings. I have long been interested in Western-style images and try my best to convey my thoughts through it when appropriate. These animal paintings adopt the Western-style storytelling tradition popular in the 17th and 18th centuries,” explains Thai artist Natee Utarit, 48.

natee utarit

Investor (oil on linen, 2014).

His Optimism Is Ridiculous show kickstarts the 60th anniversary celebrations at NVAG.

These 25 still-life paintings of animals, painted in warm hues and rich in imagery, are a selection from his Optimism Is Ridiculous series, which he started in 2012 and completed in 2017. In total, there are 103 paintings in this body of work, including 12 large Altarpieces.

The show, presented in different iterations, has toured several countries, including Austria, Britain, Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Singapore, Taiwan and the Philippines.

In using animals as the subject matter, Natee delves deep into his love for metaphors and symbolism, borrowing from familiar references and presenting it as a universal language.

Most people, for example, would be familiar with the serpent as an embodiment of sin, or the lamb signifying sacrifice or purity.

“Animals in my paintings act the same way as people in traditional paintings. The main reason I chose to tell my stories with animals is that I wanted to create a universal imagery. Personification of animals is not something new; we see it in Aesop’s Fables where animals represent human beings. Even George Orwell’s Animal Farm does this in its critique of politics and authority. Anthropomorphised animals bear symbolic resemblance to traits of human beings. For this reason, I often use animals to represent human society,” he says.

natee utarit

Two National Visual Arts Gallery visitors take a quiet moment to soak in Natee Utarit’s I Am Gorgeous (oil on linen, 2013) (left) and Innocence Is Overrated (oil on linen, 2012). Photo: The Star/Ong Soon Hin

Natee notes that Optimism Is Ridiculous has three cognitive components. Firstly, motifs of animals, objects or human beings; secondly, sentences or phrases that connect the paintings to the outside world; and thirdly, inspiration related to the “Asianness” and post-colonial effect.

natee utarit

Are You In The Game? (oil on linen, 2013).

“The visual language in this series is derived from various elements: occident, reflected through atmosphere and style; animals as narrators and symbols; and messages shown obviously or subtly in the paintings,” he says.

Natee has been amassing interesting phrases and sayings for several years now, with examples like “innocence is overrated” or “money can’t buy friends, but it can get you a better class of enemy” among those that spur him on his journey.

“They could be found everywhere – print media, the internet, on walls or in books. I write them down, take a screenshot or photograph them. It did not take long before I found myself with a large number of them saved.

These phrases inspire me and many of them present images in my mind almost as instantly as I acknowledge its meaning,” he shares.

Some of them are used as titles of his paintings, while others are arranged around the frame, with or without details of the person it is attributed to.

natee utarit

‘Animals in my paintings act the same way as people in traditional paintings,’ says Natee Utarit. Photo: The Star/Ong Soon Hin

“I intended to make these texts and paintings work together in the same way as Chinese calligraphy in Chinese paintings, although my text is not as explicit. Many of the phrases here address uncomfortable truths, while others are quite ordinary but will make you think,” he says.

As for the “Asianness” aspect,Natee muses that he does not think that contemporary Asianness can be presented via cliched images like the overused lotus or elephant anymore.

“I would like to know what Asianness is, and yet, it does not matter that much to me. What matters more to me is could it be possible to express contemporary Asianness via such cliches?” he questions.

Apart from popular phrases and sayings, circumstances and contexts intrigue him as well.

He relates the time he chanced upon a common expression, “Money is God”, sprayed on a luxury brand store in Paris.

It is a saying so heavily reproduced that it has become a cliche that has lost its impact today, he notes.

“However, the context in which I chanced upon it was quite peculiar as it was the only sentence that stood out in contrast with everything else on that street. Then tomorrow came and it was erased by a shopkeeper as if it never existed. For me, it was a voice expressed in a wrong place. This is one true case of Optimism Is Ridiculous for me, an example of the right context placed in the wrong time,” he says.

To Natee, the phrase “optimism is ridiculous” is not just irony, but an affirmative statement that reflects truth from another angle.

“Optimism will only be ridiculous when we find it is not that straightforward, not a flat dimension, or not an explicit antonymic pair like black and white. We all live in a grey world where it is hard to determine which angle we should look at things from,” he concludes.

natee utarit

‘All the works here present ideas inspired by a colonial worldview interpretation and parody, through animals and ridiculous circumstances, in an atmosphere of classical Baroque and Romantic paintings,’ says Natee Utarit.

Optimism Is Ridiculous: Paintings On Figure Of Speech, Paradoxes And Inward Journey is on at the National Visual Arts Gallery, Jalan Temerloh, off Jalan Tun Razak in Kuala Lumpur till May 31. Opening hours: 10am-6pm daily. Call 03-4026 7000 or visit www.artgallery.gov.my for more information.