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Heng Ravuth
Artist Heng Ravuth’s work is becoming increasingly subtle, with more inner depth. Eli Meixler

Kitschy technique creates high art

For his new exhibition Innermost II, artist Heng Ravuth continues to experiment with mosaics, a style more commonly achieved using mobile phone apps

Received wisdom about mosaic photo montages is that they’re only one step above mobile phone selfies on the scale of serious artistic achievement.

A quick search online reveals dozens of apps and websites able to instantly digitally tint hundreds of tiny images for you, so that they merge magically into a portrait of your spouse, child or pet when viewed from a distance.

But in Innermost II, which opens at Java Arts on Wednesday, Heng Ravuth manages to use this kitschy technique to create high art.

He explains that he came to the style almost by accident. “I saw one small piece of a photo I’d printed out and I thought: ‘If I make it together in a collage what will happen?’”

Ravuth doesn’t think there is anyone else in Cambodia using the same approach. “Some of my friends do collages from newspapers, which is a technique I studied at school. But I wanted to do something a bit different,” he says.

Heng Ravuth is 28 years old, and has developed an approach to art that will be heartening for any young creative itching to get out of class and “just get on with it”. He graduated from the Royal University of Fine Arts in 2006 from a strong cohort that included the artists Kong Vollak and Khvay Samnang. The young artists then joined together to create the Stiev Selapak (“Art Rebels”) collective, which founded the Sa Sa Art Gallery in 2009.

Then, in 2012, Ravuth made the decision to step away from the hyper-connected world of his classmates. He left Stiev Selapak, not through any particular disagreement, just because he wanted to get on with doing his own thing. “Sometimes working with groups is not my favourite,” he explains.

And unlike his contemporaries, Ravuth says he has zero desire to travel abroad for post-graduate study or artistic residencies. “I don’t want to do a residency, honestly,” he says, hinting that he’s bored of the question. “My friends are always asking me why I don’t want to go abroad. I don’t know, I just want to do my work and that’s it.”

Ravuth supports himself with part time administrative work in the Archeology Department of the Royal University of Fine Arts, but has no desire to undertake any further formal education himself. “I don’t want to study. It doesn’t mean I hate it, I still want to learn from other people, but if I study, I feel like it’s a job,” he explains. “I don’t want to follow the rules of painting, I want to destroy them and prove something about my ideas.”

Heng Ravuth’s signature technique uses thousands of copies of one image to create a single mosaic
Heng Ravuth’s signature technique uses thousands of copies of one image to create a single mosaic. Photo Supplied

As a result of this laid-back approach, Ravuth’s style has developed in an unhurried way. He has always worked with self-portraiture, but initially preferred straightforward photography because he didn’t feel inspired enough to make paintings. “I found it easier to get ideas in photography,” he says.

These early images, many of which worked with exaggerated shadows and coloured light, bear the paw print of youthful experimentation. But they served their purpose. “When I made them, I started to get ideas about how I could mix photography and painting together,” Ravuth explains.

The hybrid mosaic works that he came up with have become the artist’s calling card.

To start with, what Ravuth does is none too different from what you can do online. He takes a photographed self-portrait – usually an enigmatic nude – and plays around in Photoshop to create about five colour-altered versions of the same image, which he reduces to postage stamp size. But that’s as far as the computer takes him. Ravuth applies the tiny images to his large canvas by hand and orders the various tints in such a way that they roughly replicate the larger image. He then works on the surface of the picture – scratching away colour in some parts and applying colour washes or thick paint in others until many of the tiles are unrecognisable as isolated images.

In his best works, almost the entire canvas is spread with these tiled images, creating the textured effect of a roughly woven tapestry, whose seemingly abstract pattern solidifies into looming, melancholy figures the further back you move.

Ravuth’s easy-going attitude has succeeded thanks to his raw talent, combined with a strong visual instinct for what does and doesn’t work. Innermost – the 2011 forerunner exhibition to Innermost II – featured works that used the same basic technique, but with a less sophisticated application. They were more literal and featured clearly defined figures, sometimes with a strong grid of bars painted over them.

It’s a technique that he has abandoned for the second show. “It made my paintings look too heavy,” he explains. The canvases in

Innermost II are far subtler in conveying a sense of inner depth.

Ravuth says he will continue to experiment with self-portraiture. For a few of the works in Innermost II he has opted for a more collage-like effect, using contoured cutouts of his body interspersed with vibrant images of the natural world to make up the figure. For now the new style is rougher around the edges than the mosaics he has perfected, but Ravuth knows he needs to keep trying new things. “I need to change and improve. Do some things better,” he says. “I want to do many, many more paintings.”

Innermost II is at Java Arts, #56 Sihanouk Boulevard, from March 18 to April 26.

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