Udomsak Krisanamis is a Thai painter whose luxuri-ous abstractions grew out of his confrontation with American culture and the English language, and yet they are deeply tied to the history of painting. After immigrating to New York in 1991, Krisanamis set about learning to read English by crossing out the words he knew in the newspaper. As his vocabulary grew, the newspaper pages became darker, with fewer gaps; these empty spaces mapped quite precisely the areas of opacity in his understanding of English. This mix of the known and the unknown—and its methodical translation into intricate webs of positive and negative space—became the basis for his paintings of the mid-1990s. Early canvases were covered with collages of short strips of newspaper, supermarket flyers, or other printed matter that stagger crookedly from top to bottom, or crisscross the composition in energetic, Pollockian skeins. Using a felt-tip pen, Krisanamis filled in everything except the spaces inside letter and number forms (for example, Q or 9). This systematic activity was carried out with a fluid painterly touch, and his canvases—made with increasingly vibrant materials, including printed fabrics, acrylic paint, colored papers, and tinted inks—are full of gesture, surface incident, irregularities, and pentimenti. They are also highly allusive: one might be looking into a starry night sky, or flying over a teeming city in the dark.
Krisanamis doesn’t reveal much about his work or its intentions, but he has described his method as improvisation over a structure1 —a musical analogy echoed in his practice of naming his paintings after song titles. For the Walker Art Center’s work, How Deep Is the Ocean? (1998),2 the artist stretched preprinted poly-cotton fabric so that its blue, purple, and white stripes run horizontally across the canvas. Cascading from top to bottom is a collage, made by covering most of the surface with irregular rows of short paper strips—neon-orange paper screenprinted with product names (Dannon, Lays) and prices in loopy blue and green type.3 Using shiny midnight-blue ink, Krisanamis filled in around the ovals and circles formed by the type, occasionally letting the purple fabric show through. In more recent works, he has used glass noodles—a kind of Thai vermicelli made from mung bean threads—as an additional surface element. The transparent noodles add a specific reference to his Asian heritage, but only accidentally, as it were: Krisanamis is known for incorporating into his work whatever is at hand; he is Thai, and he cooks. (He has even occasionally substituted for his friend Rirkrit Tiravanija in the latter’s cooking-performance installations.)4
Much of the history of postwar Western painting shows up in Krisanamis’ paintings. The shimmering, all-over images make a nod to Jackson Pollock, of course, but also to the exquisitely filigreed Art Nouveau fantasies of Gustav Klimt. The underlying collage of printed papers recalls Jasper Johns’ iconic flags and the early “hand-painted” Pop of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. The viscous noodles stuck to his canvases even conjure up the decaying assemblages of chocolate and fat by Dieter Roth and Joseph Beuys. The allusions are rife; no wonder that, when asked to comment on the recurring debate about painting’s demise, Krisanamis answered: “The death of painting? I would say, after me painting is born again.”5
“ … most of [the paintings] are improvised … you have some structure and then after you lay out all the structure then comes the improvisation part.” Krisanamis, interview with Kirsty Bell, in Christina Végh, ed., Udomsak Krisanamis, exh. cat. (Basel, Switzerland: Kunsthalle Basel, 2003), unpaginated. ↩
“How Deep Is the Ocean?” is the title of a 1932 song by Irving Berlin. ↩
The source material is only visible on the back of the canvas, where a few unpainted strips of this paper are adhered, seemingly randomly, around the bottom edges. ↩
See Roberta Smith, “Udomsak Krisanamis,” New York Times, May 17, 1996, sec. C. ↩
Quoted in Bell interview. ↩