Karms Thammatat Utopia Now
Unit London 12 April – 20 May
Everyone and everything is searching, even the flowers. In his solo show, painter Karms Thammatat populates Unit’s shadowy lower space with a host of eerie creatures. Among them, a teenage cyclops, a green dog with metallic spikes for teeth and a vase of flowers with eyes where their pistils should be. Despite their marked differences, most of Thammatat’s characters share a similar trait: distorted, disproportionately large eyes. The green dog’s eyes are so big they sit atop its head; a boy with wings has the whites of his eyes exchanged for a sickly pastel green; and a crouching girl with heart-shaped pupils beams at a translucent flower. Yet there is nothing sweet, childish or goofy in these paintings. The characters’ eyes look as if they have swelled to this size from straining, looking so hard that, inside, they might silently be screaming, ‘Where? Where?! WHERE!’
What they are looking for is hinted at in the show’s title, which hovers between demand, statement and question, but the conclusion is the same: utopia isn’t here. Thammatat’s characters inhabit scenes that are less paradise than purgatory. The backgrounds are generally bleak and bare – from hazy Renaissance mountainscapes to austere beige interiors. However, there are hints of even worse. In Freedom (Practical) (all works 2023) a boy extends flesh-coloured wings to full span, as if about to take flight, yet the bottom edges of his wings are anchored by six spiked ball weights. He smiles, nonetheless. Other characters, mostly children, share mirthful expressions as they are restrained by shackles, handcuffs or spiked collars. The uneasiness of this juxtaposition is heightened by the Thai artist’s deployment of chiaroscuro, in the style of European Old Masters, while pairing this with cartoon forms that evoke comparisons with artists like Takashi Murakami, who merges anime and nihonga painting in his work. For Thammatat, this tension between high and low forms brings gravity to the bizarre. In Carpe Diem an adolescent cyclops reclines in an easy chair, cradling a bottle. Thumb on a TV remote, he stares ahead, lips parted, preoccupied with the screen reflected in the mirror of his glossy black eye. His acceptance of what he lives in, and his efforts to distract himself from it, are more palatable than the expressions of strained glee in the other canvases. With time, these saccharine countenances begin to register as ersatz masks. However, unlike Zeng Fanzhi’s blank-faced characters, whose frozen faces protect against external scrutiny to maintain a charade, Thammatat’s masks mark the thin internal barrier between believing in and doubting pretence. Ultimately, his paintings seem to warn that joy is not found in ideals or extremes. At a time when technology and popular-media warp perfection into an attainable mirage, the search for it might transform us into strange chained beasts. Utopia may not be possible, but hopefully in accepting imperfection we might loosen some of the chains.