Dhanut Tungsuwan’s first solo show Formulated Frontiers in his home city of Bangkok gives an idea of the young painter’s vision and talent.
February 28, 2018
What makes a good painting? The idea of great painting is surely subjective, there are ground rules of course, and the kind you learn in art school, rules passed on by the great maters of the past. Art theory and all that you should be aware of after years spent at a quality institution of art. So the commitment that one makes to become painter is a big one especially given the weight of art history and its expectations, to realise that you want to make a career out of painting comes with a level of personal conviction and personal sacrifice. And whatever it takes to make that commitment to oneself is also personal. In the case of Dhanut Tungsuwan that commitment came in the form of a show that he independently organised upon his return home at 23 years old from over a decade living in England. Having left home at 11 years old to boarding school and completed his Art Foundation Degree at CSM and a degree in Painting at Chelsea College of Art, Dhanut came home and decided that he would have his studio in Bangkok and paint from here.
In Formulated Frontiers, Dhanut’s first show, he shows a series of his oil paintings in a space which he stumbled upon and could afford to take over for a few days by himself, no curators, no gallerists, no assistants, just him. Not a gallery space but the ground floor of a shophouse near Taksin bridge, a small white cube. The undertaking was the commitment to himself, after having spent years as an art student focusing on painting, Formulated Frontiers is the physical manifestation of that commitment. In this day an age, a young talented artist living in London rolling with the right crew can be anything, do a collaboration with a brand and become Insta-famous, be an influencer etc. These are the distractions that can become a job. But for Dhanut, he sees that his job, what he will wake up to today is to paint, or to prepare to paint. His show is in a way a dedication to the profession of painting, in his landscapes you could see an element of it being an homage to the painterly tradition and the great masters of landscape painting, from J.M.W Turner to Dhanut’s own personal favourite, John Martin. If you are unfamiliar with John Martin, he was one of the great Romantic painters who in recent years had a renaissance. His paintings were epic, dramatic, precise and indicated a kind of alternative future, the drama, the scene which he would portray whether they were landscapes or taken from mythology or even Milton’s Paradise Lost, they could only be described as completely unique and sublime. It was his vision that would inspire science fiction writers like HG Wells and Aldous Huxley. And for a painter with his renown, in his later life who would admit that if he were not a painter he would be an engineer having redesigned the sewage system to London, the scheme which was implemented after his death. Now Martin inspired Dhanut and I get why, he was about building alternate worlds.
The landscapes and scenes Martin created were alternate realities, spaces that were parallel to ours, they drew upon real landscapes that were elevated, heightened. In a great landscape painting, when you think about it, irrespective of whatever is going on around the artist he captures that decisive moment of the day, when the light pierces through the clouds and creates a kind of revelation. It captures your imagination and stays implanted in your memory. At that point, does it matter if the landscape is even real? Dhanut is interested in precisely that space, an alternate landscape.
He describes his paintings as “formulated frontiers” or mediated landscapes. Mediated by the digital age, he continues to explain how as a millennial, you are born as a “digital native” and that space between reality and the digital world has always been blurred. They co-exist with each other, that space creates a convergence between the worlds. They become close and closer as the digital world more closely resembles the real world and as we also exist more in that realm. What we see is thus “mediated” by the digital, even time itself. Algorithms decide what we see on our Instagram and Facebook feeds, so it is no set in linear time, it is what is relevant to your preferences, thus our digital existence is filtered by an algorithm, by AI, what you see is mediated, including landscapes and nature. And through sharing, filtering and screening, those images themselves are changed, modified, remixed. The year or space that Dhanut’s paintings exist in is the year 3001, in his artist’s statement he explains that they take place in this year because it is an alternate place, we don’t know it yet. It is also his homage to Stanley Kubrick’s Space Odyssey: 2001, his favourite film.
From the first landscape in the series, a painting of a rocket that has just launched into the air, you feel nostalgia, a familiarity, reminded of images of NASA launches that you've seen growing up. And you can also see that the artist is comfortable in his chosen medium, he captures the movement of the launch, the explosion with his blending of oils, and his precision. You can also see the swaying leaves. He has a way with colour. When I asked him about the rocket Dhanut explained that saw an image of a rocket that he liked, he liked the idea that a rocket can take you somewhere and it is also the beginning of a new journey. Once launched you understand that the rocket will go somewhere. All rockets must land in a place, and you arrive in a certain landscape. Then we get into more traditional landscapes, recognisable mountains, those of snow covered European peaks that Dhanut would have seen growing up except in his version they are in candy colours or red, then there is the triptych of mountains in red and blue. It reminded me of a study in form and colour, an exercise one would have to take in order to create something new.
After the triptych, there is a red neon that says 3001; why a red neon light in a show of paintings? Because it is part of his thesis for the show, the light signals a change (and he also loves old neon lights, it’s that retro thing) as he moves past the landscapes of his childhood and his imagination into landscapes that are composites of memory, imagination and images on the Internet. The latter being images of pastoral landscapes that we all might have seen, they are universal, or even images of a Martian landscape, totally of someone’s imagination but we’ve seen it so many times in films that we think Mars really does look like that. And so in Dhanut’s show, the paintings change, they are also bigger and more abstract. To that extent they show his personal journey and his experimentation. The image is dispersed, almost pixelated, the form of the landscape is challenged. By the third wall, the bigger paintings become more abstract. They feel bleaker, lonelier. Perhaps it is because they are unknown, so much have then been formulated by the accumulation of imagery that has been shared, images that connect us that perhaps when put altogether they form vast landscapes that feel dark, yet at the same time it is alluring.
Sometimes you are not sure whether an image that you know is from memory your own or a collective one, from Instagram or a Google search. It perhaps does not matter anymore as we are so connected in that realm, we have shared knowledge. There was a blue super red moon last month . . . not all of us saw it but chances are you can close your eyes and see it shining bright in blue and in red, equally clear setting behind the Statue of Liberty or shining bright over a snow covered mountain in Finland or a dessert in Africa. We share that imagery through the clever mediation of the Internet and social media. But when I close my eyes and I see the rose quartz mountain of of Balm’s imagination inspired by the romantic Masters of the past and the red moon in Mars from sci-fi mythology , I know that my memory is my own. That I can see the images these weeks later means that as a painter, Dhanut has implanted something in my memory, those painterly strokes, those colours. I can close my eyes and see the pink mountain peaks, and I know that they are not the Internet’s mediated image nor are they of my imagination, they are of Dhanut’s imagination and am reminded that with imagination and hard work, a painter can go a long long way, in the case of Dhanut, you only have to look at his heroes to see where his vision lies.