It’s great to look at something that makes the experience of looking seem more important than the need to explain what you saw. Vilaykorn Sayaphet’s exhibition Latmanikham & Thongsy at English Kills Gallery offers just such an opportunity. So it is that the paradox of this review comes into being. Better to go out and stare at the clouds than sit here typing: they happened to be moving rapidly today over Bushwick. To experience the exhibition is to partake of the natural poetry of form and feeling from which it draws its strength.
If you ask the artist what the exhibition’s title means, he’ll tell you that those are his parents’ names. Doubtless, but it doesn’t make it any less extraordinary. Seen through the lens of the American vernacular unacquainted with Laotian names, those are some unusual monikers. But unlikelihood is the order of the day at Latmanikham & Thongsy. The twenty-one paintings on display were all painted in a flurry of activity in 2014.
Sayaphet has an entirely personal approach to painting, which at this stage involves collage, though he does not identify as a collage artist. All of his paintings are done from memory. Or, more specifically, from memories in that each painting appears to be a composite of remembered elements. The collage technique makes its importance felt as a means of associating temporally dispersed fragments of memory in a single image. Contributing to this surrealistic aura is Sayaphet’s heritage as a Laotian-American, so some of the imagery’s foreignness derives form his recalling that distant land.
The clarity of his memory is at times impressive. In “Untitled (farm)” the way some buildings appear to be abandoned as others fall slowly into decay is lovingly documented. What makes this small village scene so compelling is the inventiveness with which Sayaphet treats the architectural textures and invasive floral growth that flesh out his remembered Laos.
A compelling hiccup occurs in “Untitled (farm),” as well as in paintings such as “Landscape (North Carolina to Laos)” and “Interpretation of my Mother” in which Sayaphet musters the greatest detail in depicting his motifs. The combination of an earthy, atmospheric perspective with a regionalist’s attention to local detail manifests an element of kitsch. It is the kind of thing associated with paintings of the Eiffel tower on the streets of Paris. The isolation of the occurrence in three paintings heightens the poignancy of the exhibition as a whole. Aren’t there always corners of the memory subject to nostalgic reverie?
Across the room from “Untitled (farm)” hangs “Untitled,” a landscape in which pillar-like hills rise from a seascape in a motif familiar from classical Chinese paintings. Do these same natural wonders exist in Laos? It is landlocked. At any rate, the whole thing is too outlandish for the wildest imaginings of what any one place might look like. It is a composite world of Sayaphet’s creation and it demonstrates precisely how collage fits into his method. Certain passages of the painting appear to have been cut from other paintings and grafted into this work’s surface, though the heavy impasto makes it hard to say with certainty. Presumably the artist continued working on the painting fragment after the graft, further obscuring a precise chronology of how the painting was made. The collaged areas shift the scale, most notably on the left hand side where something resembling a lean cut of beefsteak balances precariously atop a thin mountain.
Most likely, it is a tree house. Tree houses appear repeatedly throughout the exhibition, at times barely distinguishable from the thick web of paint and collage in which they are enmeshed. The idea of a tree house resonates with childhood and the desire for escape to someplace distant and strange, yet safe. Egypt, Pompeii and Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains are just a few of the places to which Sayaphet gives us access — whether or not he’s been there is beside the point: this is about the rapture of imaginative transport: a walk in a dark wood.
“Walking through the Park 1,2 and 3,” a kind of triptych, three paintings of the same size of the same hills in an unnamed park is just such a stroll, an invitation to walk slowly, consider the exact hues of the foliage and contemplate the lay of the land. Sayaphet’s omnivorous appetite for painting and his unwillingness (or inability) to dedicate himself to a single approach strengthen both his art and the genres on which he draws.
Vilaykorn Sayaphet: Latmanikham & Thongsy continues at English Kills (114 Forrest Street, Bushwick, Brooklyn) through October 12.