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Self-taught Thai artist Jiab Prachakul’s portrait series, all featuring members of the Asian diaspora, brings conviviality and introspection to San Francisco.
After a year of isolation, Jiab Prachakul’s solo show “14 Years” offers contact: direct gazes, textures that jump off the canvas, intimate social moments that invite viewers into their world. Presented by Friends Indeed Gallery at Four One Nine in San Francisco’s SoMa district through April 30, “14 Years” is Prachakul’s first major show worldwide, and first solo show in the United States.
Born in the town of Nakhon Phanom in northeast Thailand, Prachakul studied film at Thammasat University in Bangkok and began her career working in casting for film. After a move to London and encountering David Hockney’s “Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy” (1970-71) at the National Portrait Gallery, Prachakul realized she wanted to be an artist. The show’s title, “14 Years,” is a reference to that time she spent developing her artistic practice: “The process is something to cherish,” the artist told Hyperallergic.
Housed behind an unassuming storefront by a Costco and a freeway overpass, Four One Nine’s airy gallery space offers visitors fragrant Aesop hand sanitizer and thirty meditative minutes alone with Prachakul’s eight portraits. (Due to Covid restrictions, “14 Years” is available to view by appointment only.) Each painting depicts a member of the Asian diaspora, a rich collection which the artist calls “a continuation of a self-observation on Asian identity, my identity” — a welcome addition to San Francisco while the area faces increasing reports of anti-Asian violence.
Prachakul’s subjects are commanding figures — bearing “a general sense of culture, taste, and intellect,” in the gallery’s words. While Asian Americans are subject to rising incidents of hate, mass violence, and othering in the media, it is refreshing to see Prachukul’s warm and familiar depictions of the Asian diaspora. Her subjects include the Thai director, screenwriter and producer Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul, Japanese composer Makoto Sakamoto, and a friend’s young daughter, all of whom exude depth, vitality, and honesty.
In each portrait, Prachakul constructs uncannily specific gazes that draw the viewer in. In “Stand By” (all works 2020) an austere film director levels a stare over a pair of nose-perched glasses, and “Lexi” features a child peering up with an impish smile, a mushroom hat jauntily askew. In contrast to these direct gazes, other pieces such as “Naked” and “A Conversation with Apichatpong” show Sakamoto and Weerasethakul solemnly gazing downwards and to the side, respectively. “These characters are all part of my life and the connections I have to them ultimately make me the subject of the works,” Prachakul wrote to Frieze, verbalizing the relationships implied by each intimate portrait.
“The portrait wasn’t just in the faces, it was in the whole setting,” David Hockney has said. Indeed, the works included in “14 Years” are marked by the dense specificity of their backgrounds — the subjects are variously positioned by a deer statue, film equipment, mirrored walls, an escalator. The care Prachakul takes in composing her settings cultivates dynamic, inviting scenes. “3 Brothers” depicts an intimate evening of wine and music: one figure strums a guitar while the others drink and pour, subtle smiles on each face. The bottles sit open on the table, as if viewers could reach in and pour themselves a glass.
Many of Prachakul’s subjects are dressed simply, draped in white, black, or neutral tones. And yet, the artist’s thick brushstrokes tease out color and texture, creating depth and specificity in each garment. Within crisp white shirts lie streaks of soft yellow and blue, and folds of black cloth are articulated with bold precision. Each outfit’s depiction meshes with each subject’s mien, creating cohesive figures: “Our identity is given to us the moment we are born, but as we grow up it becomes a reflection of our choices… These choices unfold themselves and are engraved, without us even realizing, in our physical gestures, our personal styles, and the look that comes from deep within our eyes,” the artist says.
In line with her film background, “14 Years” showcases Prachakul’s masterful understanding of light. In “Naked” , Sakamoto’s somber appearance is dramatically lit from a high diagonal, shadows carving out the contours of his face, evocative of a Hamlet soliloquy. In “Connecting,” a self-portrait of the artist posed with a rendition of herself as a child, the light is low and direct from the front, flattening the figures into their backdrop and creating shadows that peek out from just behind their bodies. The overall effect is affected and staged, reminding the viewer that the scene they are witnessing is not quite captured from real life. Yet the warmth in the older Prachakul’s eyes shines through, as well as the sweet sincerity of her younger self: there is truth to this picture, if not reality.
“The painter constructs, the photographer discloses,” wrote Susan Sontag in On Photography. In “14 Years,” Prachakul has managed to achieve both. Prachakul’s portraits take the viewer into colorful, bold worlds that are of the artist’s construction, yet document the identities and dynamics within her cosmopolitan circles and her own self. In an uncertain time marked by isolation and fear, “14 Years” stands as an invigorating bastion of conviviality. Prachakul’s subjects, through her compassionate and discerning eye, remind viewers that a vibrant world still exists.
TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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