Bright, surreal and vibrant – the works of Phe Sophon defy categorisation. Seeing the 32-year-old’s eyecatching paintings is the ocular equivalent of eating sour gummy bears. Swirls of palm-leaf green, lush purple and Caribbean blue pulsate around coherent figures and settings.
Starting on Tuesday, nine of his surreal paintings will be on display at the Asia Foundation’s art gallery in the solo exhibition Time Pieces – Livelihood of Phnom Penh.
The three month-long exhibition is part of a newly launched series of art projects in the space that focus on Phnom Penh and Cambodian urban life.
In one painting to be exhibited, the artist’s own customised tuk-tuk, which doubles as a food and beverage stand, passes in front of a psychedelic Aeon Mall.
Driving the portable snack shack is a fanciful figure, with the body and dress of an average Joe, but the head and pointy crown of an Angkorian princess.
It is this mixing of the normal and the abnormal that characterises the painter’s eccentric style.
Sophon, said Asia Foundation curator Khiang Hei, is “unlike any other artist in Cambodia”. While it is in vogue among Cambodian artists to incorporate darker colours, he said, Sophon paints mostly with a brighter palette.
And in a painting world so drawn to abstraction, Sophon produces easily recognisable scenes, moments collected from his day job as a street-food seller – a fruit salesman and his wagon of watermelons, a gaggle of motodops set against a backdrop of skyscrapers, a family sitting down to lunch. It is their familiarity that pulls you in.
But what brings life to such common sightings is their brightly crafted surrealism: the wild colourings, the long, comic noir shadows, and the unreal textures upon every space.
And though Sophon said each of the exhibited paintings were done using acrylic paints, the works are curiously reminiscent of marker doodles sketched by a spaced-out high school student, which is not to say that they are infantile, only that there is an unmistakable youthfulness to them and a disregard for familiar aesthetics or institutionalised stylings – a trait usually found among urban graffiti artists.
And indeed Sophon is a product of the streets. The Siem Reap native pays his rent by selling snacks and drinks outside schools and construction sites from his flamboyantly self-designed tuk-tuk (his most popular ware is passionfruit juice, he said). Consider Sophon’s day-to-day life – it consists of motorbike horns, garment workers squeezed inside trucks, mangy dogs, petrol sold in Coca-Cola bottles and children hawking lotus flower necklaces among smoggy traffic stops. The artist’s inspiration flows from the pavement.
“I’ve reflected things in my paintings that I see every day as a street-seller,” said Sophon. Wearing a collared shirt with a fashionable krama tied around his neck, the painter looked as if he’d fit better inside a Greenwich Village cafe than on a BKK sidewalk hawking cans of Nescafe.
But perhaps it is that eccentricity that allows him to view his adopted city through such a unique perspective, which is as critical as it is psychedelic.
“It’s a fast-changing city. We’ve got lots of tall buildings coming up and technology advancements, yet some people are still living in poverty,” he said.
“What I’m trying to communicate is that people should pay attention to development and society as a whole.”
Through the paintings, he implied, maybe people would see Phnom Penh’s lightning growth in a new light.
Time Pieces – Livelihood of Phnom Penh, The Asia Foundation, #59 Street 242. Opening night September 29, 6:30pm .