Ancient Struggles

What if Planet Of The Apes was set in medieval times with chimpanzees and baboons in battle with dragons and space colonizers? It’s easy to imagine the paintings of Thai artist Thanat Karunrobdul setting up this plot. His realistic oil paintings depict castles and pagodas overrun by giant snakes and flying primates draped in ancient armor wielding swords and spears. The edges are often decorated with borders in the style of illuminated landscapes and traditional mountain landscapes hover in the background.

Karunrobdul’s parents are German-speaking guides and translators, so he grew up familiar with European history and culture. “When I was a kid I’d read medieval tales like King Arthur or other knight stories, but I couldn’t understand them, so I learned from the illustrations,” he laughs. And although he’s Thai-Chinese, he’s more familiar with Western culture because of his parents. All of the East Asian elements in his work are originally inspired by the Japanese manga, anime, and Tokusatsu movies that he and many other Thai kids were influenced by.

Karunrobdul has always had a healthy interest in Thai history as well but says he avoids using it much to avoid controversy. “Many Thais are very conservative and think that Thai history and literature shouldn’t be questioned or reinterpreted,” he explains. Because of this, you’re more like to find ferrets dressed in regal European costumes and yokai battling it out in traditional Minka houses. But one thing you’ll never find is an actual human. “I prefer to paint animals because they have different behavior and anatomy in many species, and I can use that to represent different types of humans.”

In one piece, NASA astronauts wearing millstone collars and Roman helmet decorations with peace symbols and smiley face stickers plant the Earth flag on a new planet while bearing radioactive gifts to a decimated primate population. Who are these mysterious space travelers and what horrors have they visited upon this remote world? We’ll never know or be sure, but we can fill in the blanks ourselves. “I think it’s more fun to let viewers imagine what’s happening in my paintings and what’ll happen afterward, the same way that movies have cliffhanger endings,” Karunrobdul says. It’s easy to imagine the meaning, but he’s purposefully keeping things open to interpretation.

Like many of Karunrobdul’s paintings, the NASA scene is part of a series and meant to be viewed after his painting of gorillas at war, with dozens on horseback and swathed in plate armor waving a mishmash of colorful flags running down a sole surviving chimp. The sequence is bound to add some nuance to a viewer’s interpretation.

Remaining aloof is only part of Karunrobdul’s reason for leaving things open-ended. Despite the fact that most of his paintings revolve around battles, he prefers to avoid clear depictions of violence, usually painting scenes before and after the swords strike. In some, you’ll find hidden blood splatters and silhouettes of blades hitting their mark, but it’s never the focus or out in the open. “I’m not into presenting heroes of war,” he explains. “What’s left after wars are violence, loss, and fear. Many of my paintings actually show environmental damage due to the war and perspectives on grief and loss.”