In his small studio-cum-living area in the White Building, painter Pen Robit is using the small apartment’s kitchen as a washroom, full of tarry oil paint containers and pots. His kitchen – a gas burner and collection of sauces and a jar of coffee – has been transported to the balcony, from which the ’70s-era double doors have been pried off long ago. The wide-open space is good for ventilation from the oil paint fumes, he says smiling.
Leaning frame-to-frame inside the apartment, are Robit’s bold, large scale canvases ready for exhibition in his latest solo show at Romeet Gallery next week.
“Before I came here I asked my friend to find me a place. He couldn’t find somewhere that was cheap and had a space to work in, but I had another friend that knew about [the White Building]. I came to have a look and it had a big space so I decided to rent”, says Robit, 24, who moved to Phnom Penh from Battambang this year.
“My father told me that this building was built as apartments a long time ago. The people who lived here were mostly artists: musicians, dancers.”
He says he keeps to himself but sometimes hears guitar music and traditional music coming from upstairs.
Until recently the artist shared his flat with two rabbits who “were like family”. Sadly the pair died, separately, on a trip to Battambang but their absence is somewhat disguised by a new ginger kitten, Miao Miao, who springs and claws his way around Robit as if the artist were a human gymnasium.
The kitten runs behind one of the canvases suddenly and Robit coaxes it away from the artwork.
Lively and imposing, Robit’s dark and colourful oil paintings are pulsating, tangled portraits of obscured faces and traditional objects.
The artist picks up a small plastic bag to demonstrate how he fills the dense backgrounds with a repetitive net-like pattern, dripping the paint across the canvas to create loose criss-crossed drops and forms.
The paintings feature kramas, looped and folded around heads and sometimes on their own, hovering in front of a mass of black and blood-red lines.
“Wherever you go you see old people using the krama . . . Especially in Phnom Penh I see so many people who are very poor, begging for money, wearing the krama – this is who I want to show in society. In this society, it’s hard.”
As well as being symbolic of provincial life and an older generation, the krama’s beautiful versatility – “to bathe, to shield from the sun” – has a strong resonance for Robit.
Leaving Battambang’s close-knit, active art scene was a big leap for the artist, who was educated at the city’s Phare Ponleu Selpak school and taught there for a short time before heading to the capital.
“They’re not so different, Phnom Penh and Battambang, but I just wanted to change my life. Here there are opportunities, galleries where artists can talk, communicate . . . and I could improve myself.
“Before I went to Phare Ponleu, when I was young, I had [art] in the blood. I loved art when I was a child. I started to draw when I was six years old. I drew cartoons, everything that I could, and at school when I was taught drawing, I was awarded the highest marks.”
After five years completing a graduate diploma for art at the well-known school, the 21-year-old was funded to study in Paris for three months.
“I learned a lot of visual art techniques, I studied life drawing, anatomy, portrait, observation and realist painting and many more techniques.”
The Romeet show is Robit’s second solo exhibition at the Phare Ponleu’s Phnom Penh gallery and will feature 13 works on the poignant kramas and portraits theme.
To get it all finished, Robit begins his days early, at 6am, when the White Buildings is alive with vegetable sellers, roaring children and corner-shop life.
On the wall in his studio, ‘WORK HARD’ is written in orange chalk.
“I don’t like to draw small – I can’t express my feelings, what I want.
“Big has more power, the big canvas offers more inspiration.”