Visual autobiography

Known for a reluctance to display his works, National Artist Chalood Nimsamer's current exhibition highlights his life-long contributions to our artistic heritage

It is more fitting to call Chalood Nimsamer's latest exhibition a visual autobiography.

Mural Painting’ is the highlight of Chalood’s latest exhibition which is currently taking up the entire 9th floor of the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre.

"Chalood's Mural Painting And Retrospective", currently taking up the entire 9th floor of the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, is composed of all the 84-year-old artist's major works over his six-decade career, from the most recent "Mural Painting" project, earlier series like "Dharma Silpa" and "Drawing", to "Rome Drawings And Abstract Prints" done during his years abroad, back to "Early Works" from his university days.

Awarded National Artist status in Visual Arts (Sculpture) in 1998, not only has Chalood created a number of notable works, including the landmark golden Lokuttara sculpture in front of the Queen Sirikit National Convention Center, he is also one of the most influential figures in Thailand's contemporary art scene.

He was among the first to apply traditional Thai painting techniques to contemporary art. As one of Silpa Bhirasri's students, his role as a teacher has been equally noteworthy. After studying art in Rome, he came back and established the Department of Graphic Arts and later the Department of Thai Arts at Silpakorn University's Faculty of Painting, Sculpture and Graphic Arts. But showing off has never been part of his personality. While the number of exhibitions would have been almost countless for any artist with only half his talent, Chalood has had relatively few solo exhibitions. Smiling and humble, with an occasional burst of laughter that betrays the youthfulness underneath his rather frail body and white hair, he finds it difficult to explain why he doesn't like showing his works.

"I don't like having my works exhibited unless it's really necessary and that has always been my habit," he says.

"All the works in this exhibition portray the person I am, how I have grown in each period in life."

The tour route is set in a circular and chronological order, before going round anti-clockwise to earlier periods and finally to the earliest works in his career, visitors first encounter after the entrance on the right the artist's most recent project "Mural Painting".

Unlike murals seen on temple walls, Chalood's ''Mural Painting'' _ the highlight of the exhibition _ is made up of hundreds of drawings and acrylic-painted pieces put together all over the walls which portray people's way of life rather than the usual jatakas and religious stories.

''Because each painting is small, I can get it done fast. Sometimes I finished as many as five or six pieces a day,'' he says.

''There are so many pieces and I don't think it's suitable to put them on display separately.''

Most of the paintings feature a prim-looking woman with short hair and dressed in traditional clothes amidst a rural setting. Looking at each painting closely, the expression and demeanour of the woman and the bucolic surroundings radiate a sense of serenity.

But step back and stand in the middle of the room surrounded by hundreds of these paintings, and it's a different experience altogether.

''Putting them on the walls like this can create the sense that visitors are being embraced by the paintings,'' says Chalood. ''I don't like putting a glass case over my works. I paint on saa [mulberry] paper whose texture itself already has its own meaning apart from what I have painted.'' The inspiration for the woman in most of the paintings came from his cousin when she was little.

''And I guess there are certain traits of my daughter and myself too,'' he says.

One of the works from the ‘Rural Environmental Sculpture’ series in which Chalood used his body as part of his art.

As for the pastoral surroundings and nature, they have always been the subjects in his art.

Unlike the city, he explains that ''everything in the country is much more pure because it's where modern influences have not yet reached. We can see the Thainess more in these surroundings''.

Further into the gallery are works from earlier periods. The drawing section features many of Chalood's drawing series including ''Visual Poetry'', ''Daughters'', ''Sculpture in Landscape'' and ''Meditative Drawing''.

In quite a similar style to the woman in the ''Mural Painting'' series, the female figures in the ''Daughters'' set impart a sense of serenity and beauty that somehow make people feel calm after gazing at them for some time. The most striking set in this section is probably ''Visual Poetry'' _ a selection of abstract artworks with shapes and patterns instead of words in stanza-like forms. While not telling the story through words, visitors are drawn to use their imagination and create their own interpretation.

The ''Dharma Silpa'' series, created between 1987-96, reflects Chalood's religious side, but his portrayal of it is by no means traditional. Although employing Buddhist symbols, he used them not to express Buddhist beliefs, but his calm and free state of mind which resulted from studying Buddhism. The ''Rural Environmental Sculpture'' series is a good example of his sense of innovation as an artist. To portray the way of life in rural areas, he created artworks using objects and materials around him as a medium of expression. All of these works are displayed in photographs and a striking example is the one in which the artist himself is standing with objects like coconut shells and sections of bamboo hung all over him.

''Although we have come to know such techniques today as performance art, during that period nobody knew what that was and probably thought he was crazy,'' the exhibition's curator Pakorn Klomkliang explains. ''He liked to experiment and it's not only for the good of his art, he also used what he learned to teach his students.''

''Rome Drawings and Abstract Prints'' is comprised of landscape drawings done during his studies in Rome in 1956-1958 and the US in 1964. Using a reed pen and done right at the various spots he visited, one can feel the force and accuracy only through the seemingly swift sketch lines. And once we know that some were drawn during the artist's initial foray abroad, we can feel the sense of adventure in them more.

Although the ''Early Works'' series dates back to the 50s, his techniques show how far ahead he was compared to his contemporaries. While reflecting rural life in many works, his chose to use a thick brush and was the first person to use gold leaf, normally used in traditional art, in contemporary pieces.

''This exhibition is more or less a study of Thai art history where people can learn from his techniques,'' says guest curator Sutee Kunavichayanont, head of the Department of Art Theory at Silpakorn University's Faculty of Painting, Sculpture and Graphic Arts.

''There are elements in his works which might seem familiar to many people now, but one has to remember that this was done so many years ago. For the general public, they can simply enjoy the beauty of the works.''

The process of gathering such a comprehensive art display has not been easy. The most difficult part was not compiling the works but the persuading the artist to agree to have his works displayed.

''Chalood rarely has his works exhibited,'' says Pakorn. ''We had to do a lot of research into his art in each period of his life before he could see how keen and well-prepared we were and finally agreed.''

For an artist known to be very reluctant when it comes to showing his works, the scale of the exhibition is so extensive that an hour or two hour's ramble probably isn't enough to fully appreciate everything.

''With this exhibition, it's nice to see my works from different periods displayed together,'' says Chalood.

''It's very much like an overview of who I am. I think art can tell more of your history than words can because it comes from the inside. If people who really know art look at these works carefully, they will get to know the person I am.''

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About the author

Writer: Kaona Pongpipat
Position: Life reporter