What you see: King, a 2011 oil on linen by Natee Utarit. It set the world auction record for any work by the artist when Phillips Hong Kong sold it in November 2019 for HK $2.7 million (about $353,000) against an estimate of HK $1 million to $1.5 million ($128,000 to $192,000).
The expert: Sandy Ma, international specialist at Phillips.
Who is Natee Utarit? He’s a Thai artist who works in Bangkok. He’s been deemed one of the most significant and important artists in Southeast Asia right now. He’s known for his distinct style of painting and famously has a track record of works being exhibited in museums and institutions.
How prolific has Natee Utarit been? He’s been painting all through his life. He was born in 1970, and had his first show as early as 1990. As for a total [on output to date], I’m not sure, but on average, for the last year or two, he’s been doing as many as five to ten shows a year. He’s not only a painter. He sculpts and works in mixed media.
How often does Natee Utarit paint in the style we see in King? He’s primarily known for his figurative works. What really draws people in is not just the richness of the canvas and how beautiful it looks, but the complexity in the images as well. He puts in a lot of effort and thought in his works to talk about important socio-political issues.
Has he talked about what drew him to this style of still life painting, and why it suits his approach to creating art? Primarily, he uses his painterly style and traditional framing because he wants to lull the viewer into a false sense of familiarity. The subjects are painted from arrangements of figurines and found objects in his studio. He’s able to infuse a lot of messages into his work by using this language [the visual language of the still life]. I think it really does play to his idea of blurring reality and artifices in his work.
How does he do that? With scale and the juxtaposition of the objects he finds. One object is bigger than the other, making you think that the object is distorted.
He might show an object bigger than it would be in real life? Yes.
Does he make preparatory sketches? Usually there is a sketch. I’m sure he reworks and reworks the composition until it’s exactly how he wants.
King is big. It measures 78 and 3/4 inches by 125 and 7/8 inches. Does Natee Utarit normally work at this scale? He doesn’t always work this big. King is considered one of his very major works. It’s from the Illustration of the Crisis series, and this is already one of the largest paintings in the series. It’s from a trio of works called God, King, and Country.
Wait, so God, King, and Country are in turn part of a larger series by Natee Utarit, called the Illustration of the Crisis? It’s a series within a series? Yes. It’s a series of his major series. He started painting it around 2010 or 2011. People really love this particular series of works. It captures the turmoil in Thailand’s political landscape in the mid-2000s.
How does King compare to God and Country, the other two works in the trio? In terms of composition, this one has a lot more stage presence and a figurative approach where the other two are more abstract. God and Country are in private hands.
King Rama IV of Thailand shapes the narrative of King. Is this the only Natee Utarit work that explores his reign and its effect on the country? I’m not sure if it’s the only one, but it’s the only one I know of that addresses the story and the legacy of King Rama IV in such a prominent way. [The King ruled Thailand from 1851 to 1868.]
Now I’m going to ask you to walk me through the composition of King. How has Natee Utarit loaded it with messages and meaning? The golden stature of the deity represents King Rama IV himself. The statue looks through a telescope at a scientific model of a dissected cow. Utarit’s talking about the legacy of King Rama IV, who was known as the father of science and technology–he’s immortalzing that part here. The model of the cow perches on top of scales, which supports the idea of King Rama IV’s reign as a proponent of knowledge and the rule of law. The fallen crown [a white object at the lower left, which overlaps the wheel] is a Western-type of crown. It alludes to the fact that Thailand was never colonized, which is a source of pride for Thai people. Utarit himself doesn’t go deep into the meanings of each part of his work. Part of the charm is he wants us to discover meanings on our own, ourselves.
Is that a golf club bag at the left? The deity is not facing the golf club bag. It almost looks like a cannon. The story of King Rama IV is he’s a proponent of knowledge, science, and technology rather than using cannons and military might to rule over the kingdom.
What does the white classical-looking statue represent? It’s a statue of the French enlightenment philosopher, Voltaire.
What does Voltaire represent here? He’s gesturing toward a book he wrote in his lifetime arguing for freedom of thought, civil liberty, religious tolerance, and a constitutional monarchy. It [the painting lets Utarit] talk about the story of Thailand through the lens of King Rama IV versus Western civilization, and he’s really in favor of the rule of law, constitutional monarchy, and freedom of thought.
When did the secondary market for Natee Utarit works begin? It started as early as the 1990s. It really has been over that many decades, and it’s been growing steadily. My recollection is that the previous auction record for Utarit was in 2018 at Phillips Hong Kong with a work from the Illustration of the Crisis series. Another record was set in 2015 at Christie’s Hong Kong.
Does the price fetched by King represent a large advance on the earlier records, or was the rise more steady? There’s a very steady progression of prices for Natee Utarit [represented by the records for his work], from $180,000 to $220,000 to $350,000.
What is King like in person? Are there any aspects that the camera doesn’t quite pick up? I think the camera doesn’t get the scale of the work. It’s stunning in real life. The massive scale of the work is really prominent when you stand in front of it. It not only shows you how well Natee Utarit can paint–the surface is so bright and smooth–but it’s filled with the luminosity of the oil paint itself.
Are there any other things about King that a digital reproduction wouldn’t show? About the scale–there’s an interesting point. The painting is so heavy that we had to reinforce the wall it was hanging on. The frame is very heavy, and the whole is very heavy. It had to have eight art handlers to lift it at one time.
What was your role in the sale of King? I was in the room for the auction. I believe I was bidding on behalf of a client. The room was packed. Even before the auction, we knew King was going to be a huge success, because of how many people registered to bid on the work. I think there were around ten bidders on the work itself. Bidding went on for a while before the record was set. When it was, there was a huge sense of achievement and happiness that the work was being appreciated by so many people.
When did you know you had set a new world auction record for Natee Utarit? When the work came in for sale, we were quite sure it was going to be a record for Utarit. It was reinforced by the fact that before the sale, it toured to Singapore and Hong Kong for preview exhibitions, and there was a lot of interest in the work.
How long do you think the Natee Utarit record will last? My guess is… it would be possible [to set a new record] whenever a work from the Altarpiece series appears at auction, but that’s quite unlikely. They’re said to be in institutions.
Would it have to be King coming back to auction? The Illustration of the Crisis series is his most sought-after series. I think this is the best work of the three [from the God, King, and Country group]. It’s hard to say how long it will stand. It’s unlikely it’ll be toppled anytime soon, but you never know.
Why will this Natee Utarit painting stick in your memory? The first time I looked at this work in person, I knew it was going to be a huge hit at auction. It’s really one of the most major pieces to come to auction by the artist, and so many symbolisms and hidden meanings are within the work. We knew what a rare chance it was to represent the work and we knew going into the sale it would be a major success.
Image is courtesy of Phillips.
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