in Frieze | 04 SEP 07

The Story of O

Steven Stern on Udomsak Krisanamis

in Frieze | 04 SEP 07

Udomsak Krisanamis is playing golf. On a recent exhibition poster and in the catalogue of his retrospective at the Wexner Center we see him, club in hand, walking across an Arcadian expanse of green. Putting. Calculating strokes. The photos are blurred, but he seems happy. It's not clear where he is exactly. It looks far away: a country club ... but what country? Clearly he's not here, not in the gallery, the place where the work is. This special sort of removal is one of the cultural meanings of golf, something learned from television. In the sitcom world golf is code for a privileged inaccessibility. Where is the doctor when we need him? Where is the executive who's skipped an important meeting? Off on the course, miles from town, hitting little balls into the sky. Can't be reached. (Chuckles from the laugh track.) That idyllic elsewhere is the place where Krisanamis chooses to be seen.

As an index of Krisanamis' place in the art world, these photographs of the artist are a telling joke. Born in Thailand in 1966, he set up shop in New York in 1991 and began turning out gorgeous, hermetic abstractions: dense all-over patterns built up from newspapers, paint and dried noodles. Somewhat notoriously, he doesn't talk about his art, saying everything is in the work. No particular ideology, programme or movement accounts for these images. Critical response has invoked notions of pure retinal pleasure and claimed the works' mystery as their central attribute. 'Painting today doesn't have to "mean" anything per se', we are assured in a review of the artist's latest show. 'One feels but cannot "get" a Krisanamis', reads the text in the Wexner catalogue. (The book, perplexingly, is titled The Intimate Portrait.)

Whatever their source, the works themselves do stick in the mind. You worry at them, as at a piece of fraying cloth. It seems as if something is going on that isn't strictly art; an elsewhere is woven into their structure. Is it worthwhile to wonder if, and to what extent, the photos of Krisanamis striding along the fairway like a suburban dandy are meant to have any explanatory power? (We've had Artist-as-shaman, Artist-as-research-scientist, Artist-as-publicity-agent - why not Artist-as-golfer?) What goes on between the putting green and the canvas?

Wandering through almost a decade of Krisanamis' work at the Wexner, you can see how his images have evolved, complicating their own complications. What has remained constant is his singular, specific use of collaged material. He takes letters from newspapers and numbers from supermarket price stickers and blocks out everything but the rounded empty centres of the characters O, 0, 9 and P, the part typographers call the 'counter'. The letters - or rather, the parts of them that show - function as atomic units, bits (in both the conventional and computer senses of the word) from which the works are constructed. Inexpressive in themselves, these tiny circles of borrowed negative space are imported onto the canvas by the hundreds, glued down in strips and patches, where they can be read as points of light, as decorative millefiore patterns, and as nodes of information. Later pieces incorporate translucent white cellophane noodles as structural elements. They don't seem to signify 'food' or 'Thai-ness' any more than the pasted letters mean 'language'. Ready-made brushstrokes, they flow down the surface in irregular verticals, adding yet another layer to the picture plane: pasta impasto.

The sheer quantity of these pasted-on elements registers as significant. It's hard to look at the paintings without being struck by thoughts that aren't quite art thoughts - such as marvelling at the excessive effort involved in their making, the way you would at a barn-sized rubber band ball or a cathedral made of toothpicks. What kind of person would bother to do such a thing? There's a hobbyist's obsessiveness here, a superfluity of attention, that usually seems reserved for activities beyond the pale of the aesthetic. Stand in front of a work such as Methane (1996), spreading across the wall past the edges of your field of vision, and you're awed by the grandeur of scale, the solemn reserve of the image: thousands of minute white Os against a black ground. At the same time, though, another kind of awe is invoked: imagined scenes of the mind-numbingly precise work involved in an almost pathological process. The compound feeling is an odd, off-putting reverence, a skewed Sublime.

It's likely you're also aware that the painting looks remarkably like a night sky. Or a cityscape, maybe. The white points shine in the black field, clouds of purple densities seem to open up in the spaces between them. The representational is rarely very far away in Krisanamis' abstractions. Never called forth on purpose (it's not a night sky or a cityscape), it is none the less generously tolerated as a side effect. In a particularly stunning piece from 1992 the collaged letters range across the canvas glow like lights seen from Hollywood Hills; clusters and rows seem to indicate neighbourhoods and avenues. You think: it looks like Los Angeles. Krisanamis has titled it Looks Like LA ... , the sort of title that's pronounced with a shrug and a deadpan tone of voice.

More recent works evoke the urban in different ways: you look at them in the same way you might look at a city. The paintings are nominally structured into grids, like the street plan of Manhattan, but there's a more complex geometry going on than the four-square box dreamt of by city planners. The ubiquitous letter-orifices here are all colour-xeroxed price stickers - chemical blue and orange 6s and 9s - glued down in messy, sometimes overlapping strips. Heavily built up along their circumference with thick acrylic paint, the holes in the numbers become physical depressions in the uneven surface of the work, a tactility that was suggested but not realized in earlier paintings. Collaged noodles striate up and down. Weaves of vertical and horizontal painted lines intersect, passing through, above and under each other. It's exhausting trying to catalogue all the different relationships enacted by the visible and hidden parts. These paintings have a fractal energy, a complexity of infinite regression that extends to the tiny white crescents visible in the misregistration of the numbers. In all of Krisanamis' work, from thefaux-pastoral to the pseudo-urban, there's the sense that a game is being played. The rules are not explicit, but they may have something to do with scale, and with the way scale is negotiated. Gradations of scale are ways to measure distance. But what sort of distances are depicted here? There are no objects, but still there's a feeling of enlargement, of looking simultaneously through binoculars and an electron microscope. Just looking, though, doesn't provide all the answers - you have to play through.

Here's a game to imagine: each playing field, though structurally similar, is materially different in every detail. There are bunkers and hazards. You play on your own, alongside others, but not with them, and not really against them. You have a set of specialized tools to choose from, and a knowledge of the way the territory has been marked by previous players. The way to begin is to start walking. Calculating strokes. Hitting little balls into the sky.