“When I stepped off the plane, I didn’t have culture shock or anything. I just felt like… this is somewhere really familiar.” It’s Saturday, mid-September, in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and Udomsak Krisanamis is talking about his first impressions of New York, the city from which his abstract paintings, cobbled together out of bits of newspaper, paint and noodles, first emerged. We are sitting in the Thai artist’s paint-splattered studio, around us is a mix of old works and works-in-progress. On the floor are scraps of the print ephemera he glues to his canvases, and near us is a sideboard full of the records he listens to while doing so. He has just told me: “There’s nothing to discuss about my work.” So we are skirting around it, outlining the circumstances of its arrival, as one might a gilded box that has just fallen unannounced from the sky.
During the mid-1990s, Krisanamis made his name by gluing torn strips of printed matter to his canvases and systematically blacking out the words using paint or felt-tip pen. All he would leave visible were the empty centres of the characters O, 0, 9 and P. Over the years, he disrupted these radiant surfaces by adding fabric, noodles and other found materials, as well as paints and inks, with a mixture of painterly touch and gestural abandon.
He has always been the reticent and slightly withdrawn sort of artist. ‘He refuses to speak, to make noise, to make explanations,’ is how artist-curator Rirkrit Tiravanija describes him in his curatorial statement for Retrospective, which ran from June through July at Chiang Mai University Art Centre, and in conjunction with an exhibition of new work at Bangkok’s Gallery Ver. Krisanamis, a boyish fifty-year-old, has given few interviews throughout his career. However, his agreeing to this one suggests he is, for now, open to being better understood.
This is just a theory, of course, but it’s one backed up by the modestly autobiographical bent of his retrospective (and a couple of interviews he gave to Thai media outlets to promote it. ‘Finally, we discover why New York loves our boy,’ wrote The Nation). While his exhibitions are often self-referential, suffused with nods to his love of golf and music, the Chiang Mai show offered us a more intimate portrait of Krisanamis and his output than any previous one (or art writer) has ever achieved.
Exploring almost 30 years of his work, the exhibition revealed how his process – a serendipitous blend of collage, drawing and painting – has developed and become all his own, despite clear ancestral links to the Arte Povera movement, Abstract Expressionism and Postconceptualism. It also fired up the imagination. Seen from a distance, the crude incident, rhythmic skeins of negative and positive space, and pentimento typical of his deeply textured and reticulated surfaces became gorgeously madcap and mesmerising. Some of the early works evoked rain-streaked windows and spores shuffling under a microscope. Later, I saw Mondrianesque grids, musical phrases dancing on a stave, billboard posters peeking through paint, a freeze-frame of Man Ray’s ‘rayograph’ shorts and even the scrappy beauty of Japanese boro patchworks.
Each of the 20 works were accompanied by some supporting text handwritten in faintly legible Thai on the walls. Among the texts were quotes (including Frank Stella’s ‘What you see is what you see’), a short story about golf and obsession, and a poem by Emily Dickinson
Besides the intense pleasure and all-round trippiness of Krisanamis’s mundane surfaces, there were also autobiographical titbits to be gleaned. Displayed chronologically, the 20 works were each accompanied by a title, date and some supporting text handwritten in faintly legible Thai on the walls (a printout in typed English and Thai was also available). Among the texts were quotes (including Frank Stella’s ‘What you see is what you see’), a short story about golf and obsession, and a poem by Emily Dickinson. But most were penned by Krisanamis himself: colourful anecdotes or diaristic vignettes with a faux-naïf tone.
‘Started selling works. Fell in love for the first time with a Turkish woman who had a career as a stylist. Heartbroken and ended up drinking everyday while listening to Snoop Dog’s Doggystyle with a friend. It took me six months to forget about (sic) her...’
‘Mad about golf. Hoping to be good at it so I moved to live close to a golf course in an upstate New York town called New Paltz. Beautiful town. The colors of the spring were magical. I created a lot of great works there but finally had to move away because I couldn’t bare (sic) the cold.’
A search for connections – futile but no less enjoyable for it – was set in motion by the placement of these quirky texts beside Krisanamis’s titles, which are often the names of his favourite songs. Ditto the picture of Miles Davis stuck next to Silver Jungle (2013–16), a brash, graffiti scrawl-like painting made of acrylic paint, fibreglass strips and mesh tape, and also a large boulder on the floor entitled Stone Cold (1990–2016). The latter had been rubbed with bread dough, a clear reference to one of Jesus’s miracles, and also, possibly, to Krisanamis’s Catholic upbringing.
The retrospective was peculiar for another reason: two dates were written against each painting. One referred to the original’s creation; the other the duplicate’s creation. That the show consisted solely of remade works only became clear on reading Tiravanija’s pseudo-philosophical statement to its earnest conclusion, where he explained that ‘all the paintings in this exhibition have been reconstituted, reformed by the hands of many people’.
According to Krisanamis, the reason for enlisting 12 young artists to spend nearly four months making replicas, each 1cm smaller than the original, was purely logistical. Borrowing them would have been too torturous, if not impossible, given that many are in private collections. But Tiravanija has more highfalutin ideas: ‘The paintings we see here are an attempt to recollect, recall and remake images that already exist in time and space. Just as words are used over and over again in different contexts and conditions, giving us, through their repeated usage, other meanings.’ Krisanamis is dismissive when I ask him to expand on this: “Those are Rirkrit’s words, not mine, right?”
Despite having retreated from New York to Bangkok in 2001, and then to much sleepier Chiang Mai in 2009, Krisanamis still works at a fast clip. Typically, he’s at his studio six days a week. Days off he spends with his six-year-old daughter. As for golf, he plays around three times a year – not as much as before. And what of New York? Does he ever think of moving back? “I don’t think so, but you never know,” he says.
Writ large in his retrospective was a clear evolution in the sorts of found materials he deploys, from vermicelli noodles through to old curtain, bubble wrap and wooden shims picked up at the local hardware store
Most appraisals of Krisanamis tend to foreground his time there, and rightly so. It was there that the method for which he is best known – the aforementioned reduction of words to what writer Steve Stern calls ‘atomic units’ – and the prevalent reading of it – that it’s umbilically linked to his taciturn nature – were forged. As an art student struggling to learn English, he began crossing out the words he knew in newspapers, mapping out the gaps in his understanding. After submitting some drawings inspired by this technique to his conceptual art class in 1990, things began to develop.
He still painstakingly blots out words, just as he did back then. Writ large in his retrospective was a clear evolution in the sorts of found materials he deploys, from vermicelli noodles through to old curtain, bubble wrap and wooden shims picked up at the local hardware store. Meanwhile, the Gallery Ver exhibition, Paint It Black, appeared to signal a shift towards calmer, more conventionally abstract pieces dominated by large hollow circles and oblongs that repeat against flat beds of colour. But a glance around Krisanamis’s studio makes it clear that he’s not one for drawing lines in the sand. Beneath his works-in-progress sit shredded strips of Korean and local newspapers, and second-generation photocopies of the figure 8 sourced from an old Chinese calendar. These word-based canvases are throwbacks, yes, but also as dense, complicated and gleefully savage as anything that’s come before. One in particular looks positively cosmic, like a star-clogged night sky torn asunder.
Writing for Contemporary magazine in 2004, writer Kirsty Bell posited that Krisanamis’s habit of erasing words, of denying their function as vehicles of meaning and of coercing them into playing a mute role in his paintings, ‘seemed to manifest his own refusal to speak’. He’s clearly still drawn to the strange world of silence he has created for himself. I suspect he always will be.
From the Winter 2016 issue of ArtReview Asia.