Darlene D. Kasten on works by Wal Chirachaisakul

“Perusing the Printmakers’ Assembly online showcase, I was stopped in my tracks with the three works found in Wal Chirachaisakul’s mezzotint series. Who is not thinking about freedom and the meaning of life right now in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic?”

Darlene D. Kasten, FOM Docent for STPI

Wal created his works well before Covid-19 even had a name and number though. He chose universal symbols to engage his viewers in a cautionary tale of the pursuit of material wealth and power as a means of attaining true peace and tranquillity, a conversation that has certainly become more nuanced in the time of Covid-19.

Labyrinth of Liberty depicts a bust of the Statue of Liberty sitting on a labyrinth and covered in caution tape with the word “FRAGILE” printed on it. The Statue of Liberty as an image has moved beyond its original intent as symbol of friendship and shared values between the United States and France. It has come to mean the universal call for individual freedom and the pursuit of happiness, enlightenment, peace, and love. These are well worth the effort to pursue while traversing the maze of life, however we must remember that the freedoms we may attain are still quite fragile.

With Fallen, we see a supine Liberty being attacked by a mob of tiny plastic toy army men. Here, unprotected and lying flat on her back, Liberty is exposed and seems more human, more vulnerable. Wal sees additional nuance in this piece during this trying time, saying “you will see the standards of people change. We can’t recognise the original truth and it can bring the important core down.”

But it is his Price of Life which may have the most compelling imagery in these days of economic hardship against a backdrop of the pandemic. The skull is the universal symbol for mortality and the coins, a symbol of material wealth. Today I am drawn even more to the nuances of the fundamental question: what is the value of a life? Wal’s use of the mezzotint, a Gothic and monochromatic technique perfectly conveys the sombreness of this line of questioning, using the approach to deliver a tense mood, language and evocation that Wal counts as relatable and familiar.

From the time of its invention in the 17th century, the mezzotint served primarily to translate oil paintings into printed form without the need for acid to etch. Its distinctive use of special tools to create tone (rather than line) and its remarkable capacity to convey texture is suited perfectly for this role. Ironically, Wal is now doing the opposite in his practice today. He made these mezzotint prints first and is currently translating them into oil paintings on canvas.

Although Wal was university-trained as a printmaker, he did not study mezzotint in art school as it was not offered as part of the curriculum. Instead he learned the technique from his father who is a master mezzotint print artist in Thailand. Wal embraced the technique for its ability to convey tones of shadow and light. He is not alone. Today, centuries-old mezzotint is experiencing a virtual renaissance as an art form for original expression among contemporary artists.

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