In some instances, artworks are curious chronicles of obsession, depicting society’s mania for finer things, or telling of a painter’s decades-long personal fixation. There’s a bit of both in the case of Thai artist Natee Utarit. Running until April 9 in Ayala Museum, his work “Optimism is Ridiculous: The Altarpieces” presents the artist’s long engagement and obsession with Western religious paintings: its idioms and figurations; art that once inspired faith and its role in a world without one.
Referencing figural Western artistic styles like traditional altarpieces in Italian churches since the 1400s, Utarit’s works draw attention to how art symbolizes the great qualities of the West. Narrative paintings by the likes of Titian and Caravaggio evoke Christianity’s dramatic scenes. Religion has long deployed art to peddle its ideals and ideologies, as religion was similarly used by the West as a civilizing tool.
Taking part in this history, most of Thailand’s art universities were the brainchild of European colonialists. Utarit, in particular, was schooled in Silpakorn University, established by an Italian artist of the Florentine academic school. Utarit began working with abstraction early in his career, and shifted to figuration, landscape, and still life — styles exploring the West’s established modes of painting.
In 2000, Utarit’s “Pictorial Statements” combined reproductions of the works of the Old Masters with monochromatic paintings of Thai landscape photography, casting a critical eye to both mediums and our ways of representing.
Here, Utarit’s paintings are done in the traditional style of Christian altarpieces, its storytelling visuals rife with Western idioms and biblical clichés, so serious in its style that it can almost turn comedic.
In the great Italian churches, there is a certain somberness and mystique in how art sanctifies a space, how its enchantment causes a disruption: allowing the sacred to exist in the world of the profane. Art becomes the site for the divine to be realized.
Utarit’s “The Altarpieces” is hardly a reverent homage, for here are narrative paintings that both mimic and challenge the origin of their style. Utarit writes back to the empire with its own visual language, mixing the style of religious paintings and the darker, ironic elements of modernism. With references to Buddhism and contemporary puns thrown into the context, “The Altarpieces” is both a critique of religion’s hegemony, and a critique of a world where religion has lost its sway.
With references to lord of existentialism Jean Paul Sartre, as well as to Albert Einstein and the nuclear bomb ushering in the great nihilism of our time, “The Altarpieces” asks, if art sanctifies a space, what happens when there is no longer a sacred world to imagine and to incarnate? Caravaggio meets Nietzsche, as nihilism hovers over the proud flamboyance of religious art.
“Churches can become places of cynicism, resistance, pessimism,” goes a quote taken from contemporary Presbyterian pastor and author John Ortberg, written on Utarit’s painting, “Theatre of the Absurd.” Here, surrounding the text are the emblems of humanity currently under threat: a monk representing religion, a pianist evoking art, and a skeleton symbolizing science. Pointing to either the loftiness of art or the rigor of science, humanity’s ideals are anchored on how they conjure a world beyond — a sacred reality once invoked by the Western canvas.
The title of the painting, “Theatre of the Absurd,” however points to a genre of modernist plays. It’s a genre and a worldview ushered in by the Second World War, where all nuance of a sacred other world was blasted out by the tanks of history. What more in our post-truth millennia where truth itself is both a dying concept and an invention.
“Religion is a war zone, a crime scene and the divine is either made unavailable or the gods have fled the scene,” reads the exhibit note in “L’enfer, C’est Les Autres,” depicting a Madonna and Christ barricaded by yellow crime scene tape and angels and saints escaping.
In a world which holds nothing holy, Utarit’s work similarly points to society’s appointed gods. “The Private Expectation of God and the Common Reason of Investment” crams together the images of paintings, deer and rams, representing the world’s inexhaustible collectibles, a subtle allegory on modern-day consumption.
Is the art world the new altar? Utarit delivers a provoking proposition. His work “Nescientia” alludes to an important scene in Buddhism where Buddha opens up the worlds of heaven, earth and hell, unveiling the reality of existence — a moment supposedly pious and profound, now undercut by a scene of auction bidding. The sculpture of Apollo, the Western world’s ideal of beauty, is there on the side, flaunting its white marble torso for society’s highest bidder.
In a godless world, truth and beauty are constantly under the hammer. Yet in reality, haven’t they always been? Oil paintings in the age of the old masters committed to the canvas the textures of obsession, power and consumption, all invoked in the name of culture. Art came in the guise of god.
Now, with Utarit combining a classical style with the nihilism of the current age, it questions the holy altar of the art world. “The Altarpieces” reveals art’s capacity to orchestrate the world’s religions, or as Utarit suggests, to devise a religion of its own.