Duel expositions of photography and oil-on-canvas explore
sadness, suffering and sensuality through portraiture.
Two exhibitions showing at Java Café
highlight a new generation of socially conscious artists stationed in Cambodia -
those interested in crafting works more visually dynamic than most humanitarian
"Bridesmaid" (left) by Dana Langlois and "Coiled" (right) by David Harding are on display at Java Café through February 20.
While the twin collections, by David Harding and Dana
Langlois, use portraiture to explore two divergent Phnom Penh subcultures
(street children and Thai drag queens), both bring out traces of undeniable
beauty, despite some technical flaws.
Harding, an Australian-born
technical assistant for Friends International, used his years of work with the
city's street youth as inspiration for his collection of paintings, Lights at
The Edge of The World. A largely self-taught artist, this is his third
Lights is comprised of 13 oil canvases of children that Harding
painted from memory. Though differing in size and individual subject, the series
is unified by the artist's unique style: a subtle blending of impressionism with
a technique reminiscent of the Dutch masters. Each canvas frames the face of one
of Harding's street children, conveying the subject's suffering through
For instance, in "Rain," the painter obscures
what would be a simple snapshot of a boy's overcast expression with a shower of
downward strokes. The effect, which heightens the desolate mood of so many of
his anonymous subjects, is repeated in "Needle," in which a face is stabbed by
thin spikes of paint.
Along with style, a consistent color scheme has
been employed to unite the paintings. Evoking Rembrandt, Harding delicately
shades his work with chiaroscuro, setting dark hues of blue and black against
warm ochres, reds, and peaches. This study in foreshortening deftly brings the
faces right off the canvas, and in pieces like "Afterlife" and "Accuse," the
viewer feels strangely close to the image - a psychological tactic borrowed from
Lucien Freud. This similarity is more than coincidental: Harding lists the
contemporary British painter among his primary influences.
predecessor, Harding draws on the power of suggestion to play on the viewer's
subconscious, as evidenced by his macabre "Afterlife." Hidden under layers of
brightly tinted flesh tones and emblazoned across the child's face, the
suggestion of a skull begins to take shape.
Where the portrait artist
fails, however, is in his novice attempt at composition and scope. Harding has
taken precautions to bring his pieces together under the umbrella of one
thematic mood, but even in a series, viewers would enjoy more variety. The
repetitive nature of the exhibit, evinced by 13 passport-style portraits of
similar size, color scheme, and subject, may be unintentional, but ultimately
the series' redundancy is hard to ignore.
Of particular note, only two
of Harding's subjects appear to be girls, and where one would hope for an
assortment of diverse angles, proportions, and textures, the artist provides no
more than one or two. For an artist of his caliber, Harding takes remarkably few
Photographer and Java Café owner Langlois' exhibit, I Feel
Pretty, Oh So Pretty..., takes a remarkably different approach to portraiture.
Though the collection is small - it fits into one room and is comprised of only
seven pieces - it succeeds in capturing the technical range Harding's work so
Langlois received a degree in photography before
relocating from the United States to Phnom Penh. She originally came to do aid
work, but eventually decided to open a café that could create a network for
expatriates. The artistic component of her establishment is a nod to her own
days as a student photographer.
I Feel Pretty is Langlois' first public
show and it represents the culmination of several years of off-and-on work in a
Having met the subjects of her series while attending a
Mardi Gras celebration in Cambodia, Langlois asked to photograph the Asian
transvestites on a whim.
Enlisting the help of a make-up artist, she
shot them one night at Nexus, the now-defunct discotheque near Independence
Monument. The end product left her with seven large-scale, silver gelatin
glimpses into the transformative lives of Kiki and her friends.
regard to format, Langlois' collection is well suited for display alongside
Harding's works. Both series successfully limn those alienated from mainstream
Khmer society, and they each put a premium on portraiture.
similarities, however, end there. A stark contrast to Harding's dusky
meditations on the starved and exploited, Langlois' candid drag shots, in all
their action and insouciance, radiate a palpable energy and are more decadent
Langlois' twin "Brides" panels, labeled I and II, capture
the full range of her subjects' dance-like movements. Relying heavily on the
dynamic between light and shadow to energize her portraits, the photographer
clearly knows how to profit from her medium-the brides' blurred faces are
further transfigured by the glint of a strobe light.
The close-up in
"Kiki I" is a masculinized evocation of Garbo's pallid face - and indeed, the
photograph conjures an Old-World decadence that is the essence of drag
performance. A wise move: Langlois fully captures the foggy Hollywood glamour of
Even when Langlois' camera lens is shifted into focus, as in
"Bridesmaid," the energy is captivating. A soft white countenance is shown in
natural light, each feature plain and visible. Only the eyes are slightly
blurred, so in place of two, there are four. The effect, though initially
distracting, is also darkly sensuous - a creative flourish that attests to the
Occasionally, Langlois falters. A few of her prints feel
trite, as though the artist had never heard of Mapplethorpe or Pierre Molinier,
each of whom made careers from recording the appeal of transvestism on film.
Like Harding, Langlois - who freezes facial motion but discounts all other
anatomy - could take more risks.
All in all, however, Langlois has
furnished her gallery with some thoughtful portraits, and the Phnom Penh art
world can certainly benefit from this gifted newcomer. She and Harding have
assembled a noteworthy review, reminding enthusiasts that Cambodian art can be
both socially conscious and pleasing to the eye.