You cannot paint an angry flower, right? Thai artist Natee Utarit poses a rhetorical question – but is it really?
Standing in front of his works, you are convinced he can indeed paint an angry flower, just as much as he can paint a sad or a happy one. And perhaps even a fiercely independent one that believes in fighting for its rights.
Still, the 47-year-old Bangkok-based artist is adamant that plants and flowers are living things that lack consciousness, devoid of a soul or any sort of qualities that can be transferred to canvas or paper.
“So the consciousness I sense in a flower is really my own. I imbue the flower with it and the feelings that arise are reflected back at me. Flowers do not have a spirit, so painting flowers is kind of like talking to ourselves,” he says.
Utarit talks to himself quite fetchingly, then.
With every work, from him, accompanied by a story, it is easy to live in a moment within the frame of each painting.
The withering sunflowers in Devil’s Dancing, for instance, have a charming tale behind their existence, but it is one that is not exactly borne out of a loving relationship between flower and artist.
“I have never liked sunflowers or seen anything special about them,” admits Utarit in a recent interview in Kuala Lumpur.
His latest exhibition It Would Be Silly To Be Jealous Of A Flower is currently showing at Richard Koh Fine Art. It is his sixth solo in KL.
“But I bought some anyway because I didn’t like most of the flowers at the market that evening, and the sunflowers were the ones I disliked the least.”
Back in his studio, he ignored them while they stayed wrapped in newspaper for days.
“But what I learned was that sunflowers are incredibly tough flowers. They ignored me every bit as much as I ignored them. Even when the water in the vase completely evaporated, they showed no sign of distress at their impending death,” he relates.
It was only when they eventually dried out and started shedding petals and curling up in anguish and agony, did Utarit pay heed to them.
The sunflowers had never seemed alive before, he muses, and were more like plastic flowers simulating life. Their appearance is unsettling in their perfection, the contrast in colours too sharp, and they lack the fragility and delicacy he associates with most other flowers.
“As they began to wither, I became aware of them as living flowers. The sunflowers began to communicate with me, or perhaps it is more accurate to say I began to communicate with them,” he says.
It Would Be Silly To Be Jealous Of A Flower is a showcase of some 30 still life works of flowers, from roses to lotuses, sunflowers to lilies and orchids. It is the second segment of a bigger project that the artist has taken on, where he plans to survey five genres within the traditions of classical Western Art.
Last year’s Samlee & Co., The Absolutely Fabulous Show, shown at Art Stage Jakarta, was a portraiture study of Bangladeshi magician Samlee and his family.
It Would Be Silly To Be Jealous Of A Flower takes it a step further with an examination of the still life genre and a rumination on how it is perceived in the art world and beyond. The artist will tackle landscape next, followed by genre painting and historical painting.
“We have never really moved on from thinking of still life as something for amateurs and beginners, for art students. It is like still life is the first level, and you are expected to move on to greater things. Still life painting is also seen as an appropriate hobby for a dentist, who paints on Sundays to relax. Even today, if an artist paints still life as major works of his career, the impression then is that he will never be a great artist,” he says.
He observes that still life of flowers have become a symbol of boring, bourgeois taste.
“Only people with a limited knowledge of art would choose to decorate their living room with a picture of flowers. Not only have paintings of flowers become clear indicators of bad art, they are indicators of bad painters, and by extension, indicate bad taste in people who like them.”
But Utarit has always found warmth in flowers and considers painting flowers a more challenging undertaking than portraits, insisting that we can connect with the feelings conveyed in a portrait much more easily.
“You can express and explain the emotions in the eyes, the mouth, the overall characterisation of the person’s portrait. But I doubt anyone can understand the feelings of flowers by looking at their pistils or stamens,” he says.
But perhaps the picture frame provides some clues in this show, where Utarit’s still life works are as much frame as it is painting. Set against a green wall, the gold-gilded and brown frames, many from 17th and 18th century France and Italy, serve as a window to an imagined world.
“The frame is an opening to the realm of illusion, where the audience can jump in and out at will,” he says.
In this garden of flowers Utarit has created, you will never walk alone. The water’s fine and the company’s good – even if you are just talking to yourself.
It Would Be Silly To Be Jealous Of A Flower is on at Richard Koh Fine Art, 229, Jalan Maarof, Bangsar in Kuala Lumpur till June 8. Open Tuesdays to Saturdays, 10am-7pm. For more information, call 03-2095 3300 or visit www.rkfineart.com.