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Depicting Cambodia, figuratively speaking

An exhibition of figurative paintings by French figurative painter Ricardo Casal and seven of his proteges opens at the Bophana Center on Friday.
An exhibition of figurative paintings by French figurative painter Ricardo Casal and seven of his proteges opens at the Bophana Center on Friday. Bennett Murray

Depicting Cambodia, figuratively speaking

Figurative painter Ricardo Casal and his proteges will launch an exhibition on Friday at the Bophana Center with 14 Norman Rockwell-style depictions of the Kingdom.

Titled Crossed Views on Cambodia, the exhibition will feature work by Casal done during his time in the Kingdom along with the paintings by seven Royal University of Fine Art students mentored by the French artist.

The style is relentlessly figurative – each painting has a photographic quality that aims to represent people and landscapes as realistically as possible.

Subjects include a provincial police chief with a subordinate, a vendor at Kep’s crab market, kickboxing champion Chan Ratana, and a cornucopia of local fruits.

Particular attention is paid to facial expressions, with each subject conveying a distinctly human look unaltered by abstract or surreal touches.

The style, explained Casal, added “truth” to his art.

“I want the truth about people, and the truth is realistic,” he said, adding that other genres allowed for dishonesty in art. “Abstract, you can lie and it’s no problem, but not with realistic.”

Casal, who said he has never steered away from figurative painting, had nothing nice to say about abstract art, which he said was “finished” globally.

“If you look at the USA, Italy, France or in Beijing: what are people buying? Abstract art? No. It’s figurative art,” he said, adding that figurative art was less elite than abstract. “Figurative painting, it’s popular art – everyone can understand what is happening.”

While he noted Cambodia was overwhelmed by figurative art, he said the Kingdom presented its own challenges for realistic painters.

Among his greatest difficulties, he said, was his inability to find models who’d pose for more than a few minutes.

“They don’t know what it means to be a model [here],” lamented Casal, adding that he does his best with the photos he takes of artists for later use in his studio.

Casal’s figurative painting stretches back to when he was 10, though he stopped in his late teen years and pursed a writing career upon graduation from university.

His brother’s suicide about 15 years ago – Casal can’t remember the exact year – was the catalyst for his return to painting.

“My brain and soul said, ‘OK, what has happened here? Go to your first love’, and my first love is art,” he said.

His focus on Asia, he said, was largely born out of the social-economic difficulties of being a painter in contemporary Paris.

Gone were the days of Pablo Picasso, said Casal, when an artist could support himself in Montmartre without living in poverty. That’s why he moved to Cambodia.

“I need to live in a place where the cost of living is very low,” he said.

But painting in Cambodia hasn’t been easy going either for Casal, and he is contemplating moving on after this exhibition.

“It’s very difficult to find [painting supplies], to find models . . . there’s no galleries, no artistic shops,” he said.

While he is unsure of where to go to next, if he goes at all, Casal said he has no plans to switch away from his current style.

“I’m a realistic guy, and I think maybe if I can in my life, I’m going to stay in this style, realistic,” he said.

Crossed Views on Cambodia opens on Friday at 6pm at the Bophana Center, #64 Street 200. The exhibition will run until September 27.

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