Lust, greed, violence. The paintings of Supatchar Rojanavanij have got it all. They’re full of visceral tales from across history when man took the darker path. Heads are chopped off, lovers murdered, and wars waged. And yet, her work has a stillness to it, a quiet nature that whispers rather than screams. The watercolors are mostly comprised of greys and browns, with large ambient spaces of fog and smoke.
Rojanavanij’s paintings are rooted in a traditional Thai style, but she works to untangle them from their Buddhist roots, instead exploring Christian stories and Greek mythology. Since Thai style was largely formulated for temple murals as a way to educate worshipers of Buddha’s life and lessons, the two are deeply entangled. She hopes to broaden its appeal to people from other religions and backgrounds, and uses these foundations to explore her own interests and different topics.
“As a Catholic, it was often hard for me to understand the whole intention of traditional paintings,” the Bangkok born-and-raised artist explains. “So I decided to use Thai motifs to communicate stories that I’m more familiar with. I’m trying to combine the cultures of Thai art and Western beliefs for others, like me, who aren’t familiar with Buddhism.”
It all revolves around traditional Thai painting vocabulary, drawing on the country’s long history of facial expressions and body poses, clothing patterns and accessories, flat surfaces and bold outlines, and patient, expansive blends of colors separating figures from other spaces. But Rojanavanij’s colors crack and bleed as they fade into each other. And although they’re reserved, they’re rich and deep, imbued with maroon, navy blues, and golden contrasts. The patterns are stubbornly two dimensional, which makes them jump from the soft fades of the backgrounds.
Rojanavanij pays particular attention to Judas and Medusa. Although just an experiment with color and composition, her rendition of the classic The Taking Of Christ is exemplary of her work. It takes a universally known Baroque painting and fills it with mudras, Kranok patterns, long finger nails, and Thai jewelry. It also challenges the morale of the original painting, questioning the motives of Judas altogether. “I wanted to present Judas as a drunken older man, not some Satanic caricature,” she explains. “Instead, he’s just a normal human being succumbing to temptation.”
She also sees the tale of Medusa as a universal one that can challenge the status quo of any culture. In the mythology, Medusa was an innocent maiden who was raped and murdered then turned into a monster. In Rojanavanij’s eyes, she ran away to a distant land so that her curse wouldn’t harm anyone but was then hunted by even more men seeking glory. It’s a story of rape culture in a patriarchal society where the victim is perceived to be at fault. Certainly not a tale limited to Europe or Asia alone.
Themes like these sprawl across her body of work, with characters stumbling over themselves in a race to the bottom. Piles of bodies swarm, whether in war or orgy, falling into the same pits that mankind repeatedly descends across time and place.