The Thai artist Pinaree Sanpitak is known for her many depictions of femininity, with breasts being the seminal image of her oeuvre. Now, on the heels of two exhibitions and a spot at the Venice Biennale, Ms. Sanpitak’s newest pieces inspired by the female form will be on display at Art Basel Miami Beach.
For a solo presentation by Yavuz Gallery in Singapore, Ms. Sanpitak has created five new paintings using acrylic, pastel and pencil that riff on her works at the Biennale, which will share booth space with 119 sculptures that were exhibited in western Massachusetts last summer. As in that and other recent exhibitions, Ms. Sanpitak’s depictions of breasts — and other shapes inspired by the female body — are once again the focus.
“Our presentation by Pinaree is a celebration of the human body, particularly of the woman’s breast,” Can Yavuz, the founder and managing director of the Yavuz Gallery, said by email. “Put simply, the breast as a symbol of life, motherhood and love.”
Since her “Breast Works” show in Bangkok in 1994 — which was inspired by the birth of her son — Ms. Sanpitak has used imagery not normally associated with the female breast, most notably in the curves of an alms bowl or a Buddhist stupa, or shrine. These, and other images that evoke femininity or the female body — such as eggs and other curves — have become her signature items since she pivoted from her early work, which was focused more on photography and mixed-media collages.
“My work is about widening perceptions and changing attitudes,” Ms. Sanpitak, 61, said in a recent video interview from her studio in Bangkok. “When you look at a stupa, it’s not just about monks and Buddhism. It can be looked at in many ways. I’m merely taking the form and expanding it.”
That idea of expansion has led her to examine and explore other items that might be seen as breasts, and to think about how they, like many natural objects, can change shape over time. For this solo presentation at the fair, she has also zeroed in on other images that can be seen as nurturing.
“For example, I have a large painting that looks like a bathtub called ‘Offering Vessel IV,’” after the body becomes abstract and more of a vessel,” she explained. “My works come from a personal perspective. As a mother, they can be autobiographical, but they can also be more abstract.”
It is in the abstract where Ms. Sanpitak has found much of her focus. She works in a number of mediums — painting, drawing, sculpture, textiles, ceramics — with her sculptures often use paper, usually made from mulberry bark, which is readily available in Thailand.
Ms. Sanpitak, who said that breastfeeding her son, Shone Puipia, who was born in 1993, inspired much of her work, has woven the idea of motherhood and femininity writ large into her works, drawing upon not only her role as a mother, but also from her country and its religion.
“I coined the term ‘breast stupas’ for my work in 2001 because it’s kind of like a combination of the sacred and the sensual,” she explained. “Buddhism here in Thailand is very segregated between male and female. We don’t have female monks. I wanted to create a metaphor and a monument for womanhood.”
This body of work has led some to dub Ms. Sanpitak the “breast artist,” but her pieces, for many observers, are far more than just a simple depiction of motherhood or whatever else a breast might represent. There is also a sense of the sensual and spiritual.
“What makes Pinaree’s work unique and compelling is that she has never sensationalized the body as a sexually charged object,” Mr. Yavuz said. “Instead, she focuses on how the human form can hold a myriad of experiences akin to changing and adapting with time. Painting a breast, or a vessel as Pinaree often puts it, has become more socially acceptable in the past few years.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by many people in the art world who have come to appreciate Ms. Sanpitak’s journey as an artist. Her works at this year’s Venice Biennale — featured in the curated main exhibition “The Milk of Dreams” and described in program notes as “an imaginary journey through the metamorphoses of bodies” — are a testament to that idea. Aptly, the show “The Milk of Dreams” championed the work of women and gender nonconforming artists.
“Pinaree’s connection with the body is done in such an elegant way, and her paintings are quite delicate, because she uses things like feathers and gold leaf, which connect almost to a spiritual and religious art,” Cecilia Alemani, the artistic director of the art department at the 59th Venice Biennale and the curator of “The Milk of Dreams,” said in a recent video interview. “While she portrays a mundane shape like a vessel or a cup, she treats it like a pure object. There is a spiritual connection there.”
Among Ms. Sanpitak’s most recent works are 119 pieces titled “The Affairs of Breast Stupas,” which will appear in Miami alongside her new paintings. These sculptures are made from stacks of mulberry bark paper in a delicate process that requires hours of work by herself and three assistants. It starts with a single sheet of paper. They attach a wet brush to a compass and make a circle shape. As the paper on the outside of that circle falls off, Ms. Sanpitak and her team repeat the process, layering sheet after sheet, gradually lessening the radius of the circle. As the layered circles get smaller, they create the curve of the breast toward its nipple. A long needle down the middle holds the hundreds of layers of paper together. What remains is a 6- to 10-inch-high breastlike shape, with frayed edges with a smooth but bulky feel. At first, some viewers don’t see it as paper.
“When people look at these sculptures, they think it’s felt or hollow or that I trimmed it somehow,” she said. “But it’s stacked, hundreds of layers of papers from mulberry bark.”
The collection will no doubt draw in the curious at Art Basel Miami Beach. It’s all part of the how the female shape, no matter how it’s depicted — abstract or in full-on realism — can be a journey for both the artist and the viewer.
“It all relates to the body as a vessel and the vessel as the body,” Ms. Sanpitak said. “The body is the receiver and giver of many things: emotions and experiences, all tangible and intangible.”
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