A little more than 14 years ago, the Thai-born, Lyon-based artist Jiab Prachakul went to the National Portrait Gallery in London to see a David Hockney show. In the second room of the exhibition, she stood before “Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy” (1970-71)— Hockney’s famous painting of the fashion designer Ossie Clark, the textile designer Celia Birtwell and their pristine white cat — and had an epiphany. Prachakul, who had just left her job as a casting associate for an advertising production house, thought, “‘All the great artists, they are not great from the beginning. If you have the talent, you have to develop it.’ And that,” she recalls, when we meet via Zoom on a recent earlymorning in France and very early morning in America, “is when I thought, ‘I want to become an artist.’”
There is a pleasing narrative symmetry, then, to the fact that her first big career break also came by way of the National Portrait Gallery: Last May, Prachakul, who is 41 and entirely self-taught, won the BP Portrait Award, the annual portraiture competition held by the gallery, beating out 1,981 other entrants from 69 countries for the 35,000 pound top prize. (For the first time since 1997, the oil company was not involved in the judging.) We are speaking on the eve of her current show, “14 Years” — the name, of course, a nod to the period of time during which she came into her own as a painter — which opened at San Francisco’s Friends Indeed Gallery on Feb. 1. It is her first solo show stateside, but also her first majorshow anywhere, as she had trouble finding gallery representation until she received the award.
From left: Jiab Prachakul‘s “3 Brothers” (2020) and “An Opening” (2020).Credit…Courtesy of the artist and Friends Indeed Gallery
“Night Talk” (2019), Prachakul’s winning portrait, depicts a pair of friends hanging out late-night in a Berlin bar. In its composition, realism and ultraprecise detail — the glowing candle and small vase of pale lilies on the lacquered table in the foreground; the chic, understated clothing on the sitters — there are echoes of Hockney’s more naturalistic double portraits: “Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy” (1970-71), but also “Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott” (1969) and “Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy” (1968).Yet in Prachakul’s choice of subjects, close friends of the artist’s, who, like her, belong to the Asian diaspora in Europe (on the left is Jeonga Choi, a Korean designer; on the right, Makoto Sakamoto, a Japanese composer), she is telegraphing a larger aim.
For the past two decades or so, portraiture, which for much of its existence was the fusty, cordoned-off domain of the royal or wealthy (and for the first half of the 20th century was thought to be exhausted and unfashionable), has been moving in a new, more populist direction, with many painters of color remaking the genre by pushing it toward representational equity while also riffing on its themes, techniques and conventions. This has been particularly true of Black portrait artists. Prachakul cites Kerry James Marshall, Jordan Casteel and Toyin Ojih Odutola as inspirations, noting that she wants to do for Asian people what they have done for Black people — namely, to make them the subjects of fine art. “When I look at the paintings that I like, I don’t see any Asian figures that represent my generation,” she says, “I want to be included there, and since I’m a portrait artist, why not depict what is really here, who I really am and the people around me?”
It’s in such depictions, rooted in the everyday, seemingly straightforward but obliquely political, that the uncomplicated genius of Prachakul’s portraits lies. It might not seem radical to portray your peers — unless no one else is. “Asian-American representation in the media is still super stagnant. We’re still being shown as dragon ladies or submissives,” says Sonya Yu, a board member at SFMOMA and the Hammer Museum and a collector of the artist’s work. What Prachakul is doing, says her gallerist, Micki Meng, is “challenging the status quo and giving permanence to those within her sphere.”
Prachakul was born in Nakhon Phanom,a small town on the Mekong River, in the northeast of Thailand. The youngest of five siblings, she had a quiet childhood, though her mother died when she was just 9 years old. (Her father remarried when she was 12 and had two more daughters.) She was, she says, “always at the top of the art class,” but her father discouraged artistic pursuits. His father had been a famous poet and a carouser who died of an accident at a young age, and he associated being artistic with certain doom. In high school, Prachakul studied math and science at his behest, but by the time she got to Thammasat University in Bangkok, he was less strict, so she applied to study film. It was, she explains, the only artistic track that didn’t require an entrance test. She attributes her sense of color and light to the film classes she took there, and a couple years ago made a painting, “Rohmer Light” (2019), that was inspired by Éric Rohmer’s 1970 film, “Claire’s Knee.”
Prachakul then went to work in casting — an ideal job for a future portraitist, as she was paid to look at faces. But she left after three years for fear she would “end up living the life of a professional.” It was then that she moved from Bangkok to London and had her fateful encounter with Hockney’s work. Immediately after seeing that show, she bought a set of colored pencils. And, while working as a barista to support herself, she began to create a body of drawings based on Aki Kaurismaki film stills; a couple of years later, the director Henrique Goldman saw some of her drawings, which depicted her friends as various animals, and used them in his 2009 British-Brazilian docudrama “Jean-Charles.” Still, she felt invisible in London, “like a speck of dust,” and in 2009 she moved to Berlin, where she would live for eight years. There, her artistic immersion became, as she puts it, “hard-core.” She studied a Lucian Freud catalog for “one whole year” and worked her way through “Struttura Uomo” (1998), an Italian artistic manual of anatomy, to teach herself how to paint the human form. She was learning her craft, discovering herself technically. She showed her work at a cafe, a pub, a store.
In 2018, she moved to Lyon to be with her now-husband, Guillaume Bouzige, a blockchain architect. During our chat, Prachakul walks me around their apartment, where, in the main room, a collection of plants rest on a table and a tower of art books are piled in one corner. In the small second bedroom she uses as her studio, a recent oil painting, “Ostis in Arles” (2020), leans against one wall. The portrait depicts a Thai friend, June Osti, her Italian husband, Cristoforo, their baby, Peonia, and their pet dog. Though Prachakul’s subjects usually sit for her in person, this portrait, a commission — she takes five a year, and is booked until 2023 — was painted from a photo her friend posted on Facebook. The setting is the L’Artalan hotel in Arles (the city where van Gogh, another self-taught artist, famously lived and produced much of his most significant work), and, in the frame, sunlight streams from a window and across the subjects’ bodies and the multicolored mosaic floor tiles — the light in her paintings tends to be temporally specific, conveying the soft graininess of nighttime, say, or the bright clarity of midday. The female sitter, in a long black skirt and white sneakers, rests her hand lightly on her husband’s shoulder; he, in polished leather dress shoes and a distinguished-looking fedora, lovingly directs the child to look at the camera. Even if you don’t know the back story (the couple tried to conceive for five years before finally succeeding), you can feel the intimacy that pervades the portrait, and the affinity Prachakul has for her subjects. “I’m quite selective with sitters,” she says, “I really need to feel like I have some connection with them.”
For “14 Years,” Prachukal created eight new paintings — all of whose subjects are of Asian descent — including two self-portraits. (Seven of them were sold before the opening). In her artist statement, she calls the show “a continuation of a self-observation on Asian identity, my identity.” There’s “Lexi” (2020),an exuberant painting of her friend’s young daughter, who wears a floppy red hat in the shape of a mushroom cap and looks directly, mischievously, at the viewer. There’s the somber “Naked” (2020) — the spiritual opposite of “Lexi” — in which Sakamoto, the composer from “Night Talk,”sits on a stool, clad in all black save for a pair of electric blue sneakers, and looks down, vulnerable and exposed. There is also a painting of the Thai independent film director, screenwriter and producer Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul seated alone at a restaurant in Lyon, the banquette behind him and set tables before him a deep scarlet. “All of these subjects represent aspects of me over time,” Prachakul says.
Prachakul only began painting Asian figures a little more than a year ago, after she moved to Lyon and had an identity crisis of sorts. “When I was living in Berlin, I kind of felt like, ‘I’m Asian, living in Europe, and that’s it.’ But when I got to Lyon, it was really hard.” She didn’t know many people in the city, which is more homogeneous than cosmopolitan Berlin, and she had to learn a third language. But her sense of isolation led her to become more intentional. “I started to focus on what I want to say about myself. What matters to me?” she says. “Because if the artwork and what I put into it does not matter for me, it’s not going to matter at all.” It was an important turning point, one thatgave her practice a vital new bent. “That’s when things became really dynamic,” she says. Perhaps unsurprisingly, her work changed in other ways, too. Where once she’d adhered to a more austere color scheme consisting mainly of ivory, black and icy blues, now Prachakul’s palette grew deeper and more varied to accommodate the skin tones of her sitters, as well as dusty pinks, teal green and her favored shade of red. She also switched from oil to acrylic paint, because the latter is easier on her asthma, but this opened up a new method of layering the paint that creates a greater density, lushness and freedom in her work. “In oil, everything is so controlled. I’m calculating every inch,” says Prachakul, “But in acrylic, I don’t know what is going to happen until it comes to life.” Indeed, while these works may portray quiet moments, mini-narratives as evocative as Prachakul’s detailed brushwork — a woman tilts her head down and looks out over her sunglasses to pose for a picture, another reaches behind her to grab her purse before leaving a dimly lit bar — they also feel vibrant and immediate.
Adding to this sense are the clothes Prachakul paints — her sitters are frequently clad in black, which gives them a realistic feel, or a subject might wear a cotton peasant blouse, its gathers and folds exquisitely rendered, or a white lace one with delicate scalloped edges. She seems to have an innate knowledge of how people dress (and no wonder, since, until recently she supported herself by designing sweatshirts, jumpers and rucksacks printed with images of her art), of how a certain piece can reflect someone’s entire style and self. The same can be said of Prachakul’s work. “The thing about Jiab’s paintings is that they very much look like Jiab,” says Aleesa Pitchamarn Alexander, co-director of the newly formed Asian American Art Initiative at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, where she is also assistant curator of American art. “It’s a difficult place to get to as an artist, to make something that looks like only you could have made it.”
On the one hand, then, Prachakul renders her subjects with exacting specificity. Yet in that particularity there also exists an undeniable universality. At one point, Prachakul tells me that, for her, a great painting is “an honest message of certain feeling that we all, as human beings, share.” She hopes her work will cause her “audience to think about their own identity,” she says, by which she means not only their race, ethnicity or culture, but also their story and experiences — “it’s a person’s life or feeling that I try to unfold in each painting.” I tell her that “Connecting” (2020),a double self-portrait in which an adult Prachakul puts a reassuring hand on her tiny younger self, choked me up and made me realize how harshly I’ve judged my own inner girl. “I’m so happy to hear this from you,” she says, “I think a lot of us must feel the same way.”