Prateep Kochabua has a powerful gift for rendering the ordinary in glorious spectacle
ARMIES OF MONKEYS and giants are “Engaged in Combat” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in a large surrealist painting of elaborate lines and delicate patterns by Prateep Kochabua. It’s a clear-enough allusion to the never-ending war between red shirts and yellow shirts.
This is the alarming scene that greets visitors in the MoCA atrium. Prateep’s show, continuing into mid-October, is called “Destiny to Imagination”, and it testifies in full to his penchant for morphing multiple elements into allegories of daily life. All the contorted supernatural creatures and luscious nude goddesses make his art a favourite of Boonchai Bencharongkul, the museum’s founder and a devotee of surrealism. His collection of Prateep’s work occupies much of third floor.
“I’m trying to collect more,” Boonchai has said. “His paintings are wild, as is his inspiration. He’s good at representing Thainess in beautifully fantastic imagery, but with a satirical bite.”
Boonchai has just published his first book on the art at his museum, covering the same artist and bearing the same name as the exhibition. It documents Prateep’s art and inspirations since graduation from Silpakorn University in 1984. Bangkok-based Australian art critic Andrew J West provided the text for the 176-page, fully illustrated collector’s book.
Four new works are among the 30-plus paintings in the exhibition. Prateep confirms that current politics is the theme behind “Engaged in Combat”. It’s nearly three metres square and took him 48 days to complete, he says.
“It’s a reaction to the depression I felt, along with most Thais, in the midst of the country’s mayhem. The conflict has never ended, and the stream of abuse has increased. We ignore the philosophy of using peaceful means, getting trapped instead in power structures.”
West, author of “Contemporary Thai Directory of Artists 2012”, was unfamiliar with Prateep’s work when he took up the assignment to write 11,000 words for the book. But, “I interviewed him many times and found that the story behind each painting is interesting and sanook”, he says, referring to the famous Thai insistence that fun be part of every experience.
“He makes himself a symbol and turns everyday mundane scenes into a mythical exploration that can appeal to everybody.”
West traces Prateep’s career from his days as an art director at a leading advertising agency, which the artist credits with instilling discipline, logic and the ability to plan. His regimen is to create 12 new paintings a year. “Every January I sketch out all 12 pieces “to boost my energy and excitement”.
Prateep, 51, was born in the Year of the Tiger and his surname, Kochabua, translates as “elephant, lotus”, so both the animals and the plant play key roles in his art. In his 2010 self-portrait “Myself”, Prateep is a tiger with a baboon riding happily on its back. The implication is living in harmony.
Members of his family are also assigned totemic animals. In “At Your Beck and Call” from 2000, Prateep wears a torn tiger skin and his father is an elephant, his brother a monkey and his sisters a pig and a horse, after their zodiac signs. His mother is allowed human form – almost. She has a faucet for a face and a corncob in her arm. These and the book in her lap symbolise the sacrifices she has made for the family.
“I’ve painted more than 100 tigers, and I believe my animals are more beautiful than the real ones,” Prateep chuckles. “The surrealist style allows me to extend or shrink outside normal boundaries, but you have to be accurate to ensure realism. I like to project things that are fantastic, dreamlike and mysterious, and this style suits my objectives.”
Born along the Chao Phraya River and with his father in the Navy, he’s also given to aquatic scenes, whether by the seaside or underwater. “It’s very challenging to paint water, from drops of water to the whole sea,” he says. “Anything that shines or looks greasy is hard to illustrate. But I kept practising and it became another iconic part of my art.”
In his early days painting, in the 1990s, his biggest concern was how all existence is intertwined, as in the Buddhist belief. He rendered verdant, exquisitely detailed depictions of characters from the Ramayana, and in 1994 began incorporating female nudes. “Rest” from that year, with a woman bearing the head of an octopus, and “Buprestis Beetle” from two years later, are fine examples.
West notes a love of shellfish, as well. “The 2005 work ‘Seafood Soup’ sees a nude with a massive mussel in place of a head, reclining alluringly upon a pristine beach lined with phallically elongated palm trees. The mussel and elongated palm trees evidently relate to both female and male genital organs.”
Prateep insists his nudes in no way disrespect women and nothing is gratuitously “exposed”. “Woman is to be celebrated, and the nude is the symbol of birth, fertility, nurturing and growth,” he says. “My nude is a fabrication of my imagination, though – I don’t use live models. I’ve never had enough money to hire a model!”
One of West’s favourite pieces is “Snail Boat and Dragon Ship” from 2003, in which Prateep describes the artist’s arduous journey from anonymity to acclaim.
“On the half-sunk snail boat,” West says, “the crowded deck is in disorder and despair, with the skeletal remains in the shark-infested water of those who failed to board. On the dragon ship rising high above the waves, meanwhile, is a row of artists with sunflowers in place of faces, leisurely painting. It’s his self-reflexive theme that employs a lot of symbols.”
Prateep’s most momentous and most celebrated work is the vast “Churning of the Milk Ocean” from 2010, based on the Hindu legend of Samudramanthan about devas and giants allying to churn seawater into the nectar of immortality.
“My mum was suffering from ‘Sleeping Beauty Syndrome’ at Siriraj Hospital at the same time His Majesty the King was being treated there,” he recalls. “I wanted to achieve a meditative state, so I began this work while praying for His Majesty and my mum to recover. Sadly, my mum passed away, and my dad followed soon after.”
On another occasion, Boonchai commissioned him, Panya Vinjinthanasarn and Sompop Buddharat to create a seven-metre-tall triptych called “Triphum” (“Three Worlds”) for the museum’s cavernous fifth floor. Sompop took charge of depicting Heaven, Panya portrayed Earth and Prateep plunged into Hell – with an astonishing assemblage of foul devils.
THE DOOR TO “DESTINY”
>>The exhibition “Destiny to Imagination: Prateep Kochabua” continues until October 16 at the Museum of Contemporary Art on Vibhavadi-Rangsit Road, next to the Benchachinda Building.
>>It’s open daily except Monday from 10 to 6. Admission is Bt180 (free for children under 15, seniors, the disabled, monks and novices).
>>The book costs Bt1,500 at the museum.
>>Find out more at (02) 953 1005-7 and www.MoCABangkok.com.