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Kamol Tassananchalee: Thailand's Emissary of Art

Universe #1" by Kamol Tassananchalee, 2012; mixed media and acrylic on canvas: 48" x 60" | Courtesy of the artist.

Asian Accents: This article is part of an ongoing series that explores the diverse range of artistic influences from Asia in the arts and culture of Southern California.

From around 2,000 years ago, Buddhist monks from India braved rugged mountain paths and desolate desert routes from India to Eastern Asia to spread the teachings of the Buddha, a prince who left his home to become a monk and eventually attained spiritual enlightenment. With them, these devotees carried sacred texts and images that helped explicate and illustrate the complexities of the Buddha's philosophy of moderation, detachment and compassion. For centuries after them, Buddhist monks and teachers have continued to travel to foreign lands to share their path to enlightenment, often using imagery, both figural and symbolic, to overcome linguistic challenges.

The spirit of these emissaries of enlightenment can be seen today in the life and work of Kamol Tassananchalee, an artist from Thailand who traveled as an art student to Southern California, became well established here in the 1970s. Since then, he has journeyed back and forth between Thailand and the Southern California and beyond as an artist, teacher and a Buddhist. In 1997, he was granted the title of National Artist of Thailand, a title which would have made his grandfather -- court artist to King Rama IV (r.1851-1868) -- very proud. The title means that outside Thailand, Tassananchalee serves as a sort of cultural ambassador, sharing the Thai artistic spirit overseas, while at home encouraging fellow Thai artists and his students to draw inspiration from both their own roots and overseas.

Over nearly five decades as an artist, Tassananchalee has been first and foremost a global artist, masterfully introducing elements of his cultural and spiritual heritage into his abstract paintings, from Buddhist symbolism to Thai kite flying. Many of his early paintings, including a series depicting the footprints of the Buddha made direct references to the Buddha. Before there were iconic representations of the Buddha, his teachings and spiritual power were symbolized by a wheel, a lotus, or his footprints. Tassananchalee's representations of his footprints in his abstract paintings were likely more than simply honoring his own Buddhist heritage but also illustrating the fact that the Buddha's teachings have extended well beyond his native Asia.

In recent years, however, his paintings have been more obscure in their references to Asian philosophy and largely transcend culture, religion and location. Primarily abstract paintings but also monoprints, his two-dimensional works occasionally contain creatures, photographic self-portraits and artists' tools. In an exhibition at LA Artcore's Brewery Annex in honor of his 70th birthday, a collection of his most recent works illustrates the artist's broad artistic and cultural range. In two series of large paintings, "The Four Elements" and "The Universe," the artist is at his most spiritual, drawing from Asian cosmology and also from his own dream world. "When I am sleeping I always dream of my creation," explains the artist. "And then I work on the new concept in the dream after I awake."

In "The Universe #1," Tassananchalee has created a lavishly structured realm, made up of vivid natural tones, a scattering of primal forms of circles and ovals, and rich textures formed by combing through paint and sprinkling sand and earth onto the surface. With its solid structure and inviting tones, his universe here emanates stability and serenity. It is a realm where a diversity of pattern, form, color and texture can co-exist harmoniously.

In his "Four Elements" series, fire, water, wood and earth, the elements that make up life are implied by primal forms, strong colors and rich textures. At the center are bold ovals, some concentric and others in clusters, rendered primarily in earthy, woody blacks and browns and a fiery blood red. Surrounded by combed lines of swirling waves, they suggest cosmic eggs afloat on a restless ocean. In several of these works, in which birdlike creatures nestling within appear to be awaiting birth, there is a strong sense of potential -- potential life, potential awakening, potential liberation. In painting #3 in this series, we spot an owl, its feathers wittily outlined with porcupine quills, and around it, the surface textured by mixing sand into the paint. By including such details, Tassananchalee appears to unify the ethereal cosmological imagery with our natural world.

In another painting in the series, a group of four ovals are rendered in only black and white, the combed lines to form unique patterns evoking fingerprints. The subdued color palette of this work along with the orderly composition and bold, primal markings create an effect of solidity and calm. We sense that ancient forces are at work to maintain harmony in the universe.

"Palette Knife" by Kamol Tassananchalee, 2013; monoprint; 40" x 30" | Courtesy of the artist

At 70 years old, the Thai National Artist appears to enjoy great harmony in his own universe, living between different cultural, spiritual and artistic traditions. "I still tread the path I started," he reveals. "I take pleasure in living my life as a Thai artist and I reflect my thoughts about past and present in my art." His joy is particularly evident in a new series of playful monoprints, in which he incorporates the various tools of an artist, often presenting them in the foreground of the composition. In the work "Palette Knife,"* the artist's tool is placed upright in the center of the print, like a candle in the darkness. The image seems to echo the words of the 9th century Japanese Buddhist priest Kobo Daishi, who said, "Art is what reveals to us the state of perfection."

Kamol Tassananchalee's work is on view at LA Artcore Brewery Annex until January 30, 2014.

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