I first met artist Chov Theangly at his Chinese shophouse studio, on the banks of Battambang’s sleepy Sangkae River. His precise, thoughtful character was obvious as he gazed at small details in his work, and leafed through pages and pages of sketches, work accumulated over the last 14 years.
Ten of the vivid oil paintings Theanly ruminated over back then form part Surviving, his first solo exhibition, which opens next Thursday at Java Arts. In each portrait, minimalist blocks of colour are juxtaposed with contoured, photorealistic human forms, heads cocked back and bodies stretched out beneath them. They hark back to his early obsession with the simple, realist portraits and landscapes painted by 1960s artist Nhek Dim, the author and singer who drew and painted satirical cartoons and created the album covers of the late King Father Sihanouk (he perished in 1978 under the Pol Pot regime).
The collection has local collectors and curators excited, not only for its aesthetic appeal and attention to detail but also the artist’s vision and concept – an abstract horizon is painted just below each figures’ nose, treading water, barely able to breathe. They vary in size, some towering at over two metres and others smaller.
“I was drawn to the simplicity of [his work],” curator Dana Langlois says.
“He didn’t make the water literal, it’s a symbolic gesture…what’s nice about that is that you can read it individually – you can place yourself in a situation…and you can be that person…you don’t necessarily envisage literal drowning... his intention behind that is quite worthy… his point is that he wants to make the work accessible, he wants people to immediately understand.”
Can you tell me a little about your background? What or who are your inspirations?
I’ve never been to art school. I’ve lived in Battambang my whole life, apart from a few years spent in Phnom Penh. Some of my earliest memories are of my uncle, who painted signs, of starlets and stars from the 1960s, cinema posters. He made these before the Khmer Rouge, and again after…he’d always be painting these portraits at home.
I began to paint at 16. I was always drawn to bookshops stuffed with bright and colourful old, pre-Khmer Rouge books and albums, movie billboards, even at the age of four or five. The music and movies…I loved them too. I guess I’m nostalgic. I can’t say why but it all really struck me.
It sounds strange but one of my other big influences is Nhek Dim…his work really struck me… the composition and technique…just wonderful, unique colours and detail. So many of the [art] sellers on [Street] 178 copy him now but it’s not the same at all. It was also very Khmer.
I worked in Phnom Penh as a graphic designer from 2007 but in 2011 made the decision to return to Battambang and focus purely on my painting. I had started to feel more confident about my art…I always knew this was what I wanted to do…but I feel some art schools in Cambodia don’t allow for creative expression… I felt like it wouldn’t have been beneficial for the kind of art I wanted to create.
What concepts lie behind this exhibition?
It’s about the struggle…you look at people here, and most have been through this…slaving away, living day to day, barely surviving...yet the rich get richer. When I returned to Battambang I’d lie awake thinking about this, I had these recurrent dreams of [trying to stay afloat]. We’re all kind of floating. I really didn’t want my work to be complicated or politically charged though – art should be for everyone…that is very important, I wanted it to be accessible. This is simply my way to communicate, express myself.
I researched and thought out this concept for a long time. Many of the figures are friends of mine, people on the street, their stories and struggles. The noodle seller [above right]has been working from her cart for 30 years, the same day in day out. She said “What else can I do?” I learn from people and I learn from my life experience, that’s how I make my work here…so it’s really about, how do we keep our noses above water.
Can you talk to me about your process and technique? How have these evolved?
They’re all oil paintings…I’ve worked with spray paint and acrylic, but I prefer oil now, there’s something so rich in it. Also it’s what the masters all used, so it’s paying homage to that. It took me well over a year – this is a big difference. I learnt about trial and error with different paints and materials. Some artists rush through pieces, the aim is quantity and to sell. For example the figures are painted from photographs…but sometimes when I’d look over that image the lighting and colour was not right, so I’d have to go out again and approach that person and take another picture. Technically my colour scheme has improved - there’s greater depth of colour and shading and light and composition. On the other hand we don’t have access to the greatest materials here…I think you have to accept that and work within your means.
How important is your creative space to you, particularly because it is in Battambang?
Everything is just, very open in Battambang. When I came back we were financially struggling. I’d wake up early and buy and sell stuff for my family…they were very generous and let me convert the top floor of our house into a studio. This row of houses is over 100 years old, it’s pretty inspiring.
A lot of people are filtering into Battambang now, foreigners and Khmers, who are fostering this arts scene here. T
The people are honest…not that those in Phnom Penh are not…but there’s just… there’s something I can’t put my finger on here.
Where do you see yourself, and contemporary Cambodian art, in ten years time?
I would really like to build a bridge between Cambodian artists and international artists, there is a big gap in terms of understand. It’d be great to find some suppot from researchers, to bring more international artists here.
You hear of artists switching mediums often but I can’t see myself doing that. I used to focus on beauty, on aesthetics but I think, maybe I’ve pushed myself to another level here, with conceptual ideas. Of course I want to refine my technique and study more, taking part in art residencies. I have some ideas brewing away.
Surviving opens at Java Arts (56 Sihanouk Boulevard, Phnom Penh) on Thursday at 6pm. The exhibition will run until July 7.