Jiab Prachakul's paintings of people radiate intimacy, a quality that sets her work apart from many of her contemporaries.
Prachakul values the emotional bond she shares with her sitters, as it not only enhances her self-discovery but, she believes, also provides an opportunity for her subjects to gain a deeper understanding of themselves.
To mark her solo exhibition, Simplicity/Complexity, running from 26 October to 22 November 2023, at Micki Meng in Bayview, San Francisco, Ocula Advisory sat down with the Thailand-born artist to discuss her work.
Prachakul reflects on her journey as a self-taught artist, the impact of winning the 2020 BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery in London, and the inspirations behind her most recent works.
You grew up in Thailand and have lived in various European cities including Berlin, London, and Vannes. Tell us about this background and how it impacts your practice.
I grew up in a small town next to Laos. There was a stillness to it. You could take time to savour the small things, like sitting beneath the shade of a tree amid the sun.
In Vannes, France, where I currently live, I've discovered a very similar quality. This stillness is something I strive to capture in my work—to take time with someone or something wholeheartedly.
Living in various places has both liberated and shaped me. The experience gave me a more universal perspective. Beyond cultural and language differences, I've come to recognise a form or essence underlying everything that we can understand and relate to based on our experiences. This universal aspect interests me.
Your journey from film and journalism to portrait painting is quite unique. How has your educational background influenced your practice?
When I start a painting, I need a certain approach to help me synthesise the things and people I paint. Often, I find myself reaching for skills I developed in the past, such as looking at people very carefully, focusing not on their appearance but their essence of being.
Five years ago, out of curiosity, I began interviewing my sitters. I pose to them the same questions I ask myself. Through these questions, I've learned about myself, and the answers from my subjects have led to some personal revelations too.
I photograph a lot and enjoy working on the compositions of my paintings, which are deeply rooted in my background in film. It makes me feel comfortable that I can bridge my art practice to the past lives I've had, knowing that nothing has been abandoned or forgotten. It gives me a sense of self-awareness to a large extent.
Your work seems very empathetic towards your sitters. How do you choose them?
I choose my sitters very carefully, and it's a deliberate choice. This approach allows me to protect myself, as I can be highly absorbent and sensitive. It is possible to get hurt by involving yourself with people who have the power to make you feel bad, and this is something I've learned through my practice.
Most of my sitters are close friends, family members, or individuals I admire. I must have a feeling about them, a sense that I can paint and have a lasting involvement with them throughout my life. Painting them not only allows me to learn about myself but also, allows them to learn something about themselves in return.
I've painted some of my sitters—such as Makoto Sakamoto, a music composer; Jeonga Choi, a designer; and my husband—many times over. Each painting renews our friendship, akin to rediscovering your close friends and family. It's a reminder not to take them for granted.
Which portrait artists, if any, have inspired you the most?
In 2020, you won the BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery in London. How did this impact your career?
I owe my career to the BP Portrait Award. Not only did it establish my legitimacy as an artist, but connected me with people who understood what I was trying to convey through my work.
This includes curators, writers, institutions, collectors, and galleries that have supported my work in many ways. With their support, my art can now be shared with a broader audience.
If you could make a portrait of anyone, who would you paint and why?
I would paint Ocean Vuong and Lee Mingwei. I greatly admire their work. While they often incorporate elements of their Asian backgrounds into their writing and art, they also possess a deep understanding of the universal aesthetic of life and the human experience.
Finally, what's next for you?
I'm currently working on my first sculpture for an upcoming museum show in 2025. I'm interested in exploring how to enhance the viewer's experience beyond my paintings, similar to what I accomplished in my solo exhibition, Rendezvous in Time at Timothy Taylor in New York early in September 2023.
I divided that show into two rooms that represented cycles of day and night. In the night room, we created an ambience with very low lighting, immersing viewers in an experience reminiscent of nighttime. I then lead viewers into a bright room representing daytime as a contrast.
In my current solo show at Micki Meng, I've incorporated a sound installation that reads excerpts from selected interviews with the sitters featured in the show, offering intimate and touching insights into their lives. I'm deeply grateful to my sitters for allowing me to share their stories. Working on these intricate details is very fulfilling to my artistic process. —[O]
Main image: Jiab Prachakul, Jeonga (In Nia's Eyes) (2023) (detail). Acrylic on linen canvas. 160 x 200 x 4cm. Courtesy the artist and Micki Meng, San Francisco.