Artist Chhim Sothy has an industriousness that surpasses the majority of his contemporaries. His new exhibition Consuming Passion, which opens at The Plantation on Thursday, will be the 58th exhibition in which his work has hung. With a career spanning 20 years, that makes an impressive average of three exhibitions a year. “But the works on show here are all new,” the artist is quick to point out.
Along with a recent wave of Cambodian painters, the 46-year-old artist cites his primary influence for the 18-work show as the degradation of the environment that he is witnessing around him. The blues in his pictures represent liberty, while the greens represent nature. “It’s about engagement with nature and my hope for the future – that we can preserve natural resources, not destroy them,” he explains.
But as a painter-activist, Sothy has to tread carefully: he is deputy director of the Ministry of Culture, and keen to emphasise that he does not blame the government for the change in Cambodian landscapes. “Our government is already in the process of thinking about the preservation of nature – but there is a group who cannot be controlled by the government,” he insists.
Chhim Sothy is an artist who sits at an interesting juncture in the country’s art scene. He graduated from the Royal University of Fine Arts in 1995, making him part of the last cohort of graduates to have not been influenced by the more contemporary leanings of the Phare Ponleu Selpak art school, which opened that same year.
RUFA’s more traditional schooling prompted Sothy to begin his career as a young artist making decorative works that drew heavily on episodes from the life of Buddha and scenes from the Ramayana. Over the years, these works shifted from being detail-oriented to bolder, more abstract interpretations of Buddhism – work that was closer in tone to the symbolic, abstract collages of Leang Seckon, a contemporary of Sothy.
For Consuming Passions, the artist has done away with traditional inspiration altogether in favour of a more universally recognisable painting style. “I let one side fall and took up a more global style to be able to express myself,” he says of the transition. “Traditional work takes a long time to complete, but in Western painting you have a lot more liberty.”
The paintings that make up the exhibition have the most in common with the post-war abstract expressionist movement. But within that bracket they run an extraordinary gamut of artistic styles. Some feature blocky colour fields reminiscent of Paul Klee or Franz Kline, while others boast amorphous washes of colour with little structure.
One painting – a three-headed figure with body parts stacked at unnatural angles – is clearly derivative of Picasso, although topped with the straw hat of a Cambodian rice farmer. The variety on display is impressive – despite his two decade long career, Sothy gives no indication of being short of inspiration or stuck in a stylistic rut.
It is perhaps in part due to the upbeat quality of his paintings, and in part to his position within the establishment, that Sothy has earned himself the accolade of some famous fans: Prime Minister Hun Sen and the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk have both celebrated his artistic achievements over the past two decades.
Consuming Passion opens with a cocktail reception on June 25 at 6pm at The Plantation, #28 Street 184.