Exhibition text written by Iggy Cortez. August 2012.

Virginia Phongsathorn’s paintings anoint ordinary objects with a cryptic appeal that they otherwise lack in everyday life. A comma? A shoe? A banana peel? I list her inventory of images with question marks to denote not disbelief but doubt, as Phongsathorn’s subject matters’ identities remain awkwardly unresolved. This instability is not only critical to her work’s theoretical ambit but also invests it with a sensual charge – part perturbation, part play. Suspended between organic formlessness and the flatly recognizable shapes of quotidian things, her paintings flicker intangibly like holograms between abstraction and figuration.

The defamiliarization of the everyday has been a recurrent and familiar strategy in recent painting, influenced in part by conceptual photography, but in Phongsathorn’s practice it performs something at once more humble, urgent and insightful than the melodrama of casting the world under the sign of simulacra. Her paintings’ embodiment of ambiguity, their potential deception beneath their initial appearance of formal, painterly elegance mirrors our own incoherence and ambivalence in our lived environments, both physical and emotional. These works gesture toward our uneasy, conflicted attachments and projections to the things and presences that extend and coordinate who we’ve been, what we are and what we aspire to become. Environments that both numb and sustain us; frame the patterning of our bad habits and day-to-day adjustments; exacerbate or mitigate our unvoiced frustrations, lusts and cravings; and often fail to provide us with the sense of recognition or legibility for which we yearn.

Phongsathorn, in other words, charts a cluster of affects that are difficult to pin down and which often remain unexamined or unresolved – a combination of emotion and instinct, what the artist calls vibe. “I enjoy playing with a kind of ‘vibe’ when painting,” she explains, “giving each picture a particular mood, stance or voice – a voice which is complete with timbre, colloquiality, volume, and singularity.” It is in this spirit that Phongsathorn’s work registers the erotic – unsentimentally, of course, with a good dose of humor, and not without recognition of its expansive potentials. Take, for instance, Never/Last, the flesh-like tones of the lonesome figure floating in a field of yellow, its alternation between hard contours and fluid lines suggesting the sinews of a lover’s back. Then again, it could also, easily, be something or someone else, not what we imagined at all – the neurotic backdrop of all scenes of intimacy. In Phongsathorn’s paintings, every recognition opens up to a potential misrecognition that is far more penetrating than mere formal play. Her works, while not exactly narrative, nonetheless explore narrative as a kind of abstraction: in particular, the tendency to narrativize as a dimension of fantasy that organizes and regulates our sense of what it means to exist effectively in the world. Phongsathorn implicates her audience through the most oblique – and therefore interesting – angles, trafficking in a realm of recognizable, yet rarely explored states of privately experienced yet publicly shared sensations. So even if our identification of a lover – be it a long term partner or a one night stand – does not correspond to Phongsathorn’s intended object, the painting evokes the uneasiness of all intimacy, the fleeting moments of idealization, alienation, validation and anxiety that dilate around every sexual partner.

The persuasive assessment of such deeply felt, yet essentially intangible and phantasmal psychic and emotional realities could only be obtained through a vigorous and precise attention to what the artist calls painting’s “particulars,” a tradition which her artwork critically reasseses. In Never/Last, the enigmatic figure floats in an expansive field of anemic yellow: a color selected, I believe, for its lack of preordained (and therefore facile) emotive associations. Phongsathorn’s palette is consistently counterintuitive for a painter, privileging wit over pathos, and enigma over obvious sensation – avocado greens, grays that aren’t grumpy, peaches and mustards, limpid blues and beiges. Contra the history of painting, color in Phongsathorn’s work does not register emotion but something more opaque – ambivalence, not knowing what to feel, indecision. Take, for example, the calibrated interplay of monochromes in Tender, wherein the whiff of scandal promised by the crimson of what appears to be undergarments is gradually diffused by the flatly reassuring expanded field of gray. A contrast that delivers precisely what the title promises – a softness, a loosening of our pretense of hardness when confronted by the aftermath of seduction (be it through satisfaction, exhaustion or disappointment). Phongsathorn returns to the scene of intimacy as an interruption, a discontinuity or even a comedown that opens up to the pleasures and perils of not making up one’s mind about the way things are and are meant to be – a temporary, private resistance against the coercive tug of convention.

Such a state of suspension, lived not as a crisis but as a limbo, is also registered in Phongsathorn’s titles, which accomplish that rare feat of being both accurate and enigmatic – A History of Hesitation, Uncontrollable Variables, Silent Disco, Test Piece for an Eye Break, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – with all that they imply of a promise (or threat) of respite or subterfuge, the momentary bracketing of our duty to be purposive and exercise agency. In Test Piece for an Eye Break, for instance, she decontextualizes the comma from an indicator of “pace and breath” into a “bizarre object.” Sequestered from convention, the comma lurches, perhaps from sheer exhaustion, defunct, no longer signaling an endless futurity and a litany of coming attractions. Here Phongsathorn alludes to a gamut of fatigues and collapses: linguistic, aesthetic, optical, creative – not as a failure but as experimental desire.

In innovative and surprising ways, Phongsathorn’s work opens up a field wherein the legacies of abstraction, the rhetoric of color-field painting and the role of narrativity can be reconsidered and reinvigorated. Phongsathorn’s creativity reclaims abstraction’s relationship to fantasy, attachment and want. She explores these dynamics’ critical relationship to a public sphere where collective unravelings are increasingly defined by an inability to live up to our aspirations of romance, social status and financial security – creating, in the meantime, alternative imaginaries that are more playfully provisional than suicidally utopian. Through humor and precision, her artwork cites, without endorsing, abstract painting’s collusion with lyricism to consider the politically ambiguous work of ambivalence. Like the British slang greeting that gives the show its title – Hiya – her works chart the traction of emotional states that are non-committal, abbreviated and that potentially mask a whole lot of ambivalence behind an initial impression of unguarded warmth. For an artist so invested in questions of suspension or momentary disruption – consternation, ambiguity, intimacy, pleasure and doubt – it is as ironic as it is encouraging to find Phongsathorn creatively and conceptually ten steps ahead.

Iggy Cortez holds an MA from the Courtauld Institute of Art. He is currently a PhD student in the History of Art at the University of Pennsylvania where he works on the interactions between cinema and contemporary art.