Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Decadence and desolation

Decadence and desolation

Decadence and desolation

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decad.jpg

Duel expositions of photography and oil-on-canvas explore

sadness, suffering and sensuality through portraiture.

Two exhibitions showing at Java Café

highlight a new generation of socially conscious artists stationed in Cambodia -

those interested in crafting works more visually dynamic than most humanitarian

projects.

"Bridesmaid" (left) by Dana Langlois and "Coiled" (right) by David Harding are on display at Java Café through February 20.

While the twin collections, by David Harding and Dana

Langlois, use portraiture to explore two divergent Phnom Penh subcultures

(street children and Thai drag queens), both bring out traces of undeniable

beauty, despite some technical flaws.

Harding, an Australian-born

technical assistant for Friends International, used his years of work with the

city's street youth as inspiration for his collection of paintings, Lights at

The Edge of The World. A largely self-taught artist, this is his third

show.

Lights is comprised of 13 oil canvases of children that Harding

painted from memory. Though differing in size and individual subject, the series

is unified by the artist's unique style: a subtle blending of impressionism with

a technique reminiscent of the Dutch masters. Each canvas frames the face of one

of Harding's street children, conveying the subject's suffering through

expressive brushstrokes.

For instance, in "Rain," the painter obscures

what would be a simple snapshot of a boy's overcast expression with a shower of

downward strokes. The effect, which heightens the desolate mood of so many of

his anonymous subjects, is repeated in "Needle," in which a face is stabbed by

thin spikes of paint.

Along with style, a consistent color scheme has

been employed to unite the paintings. Evoking Rembrandt, Harding delicately

shades his work with chiaroscuro, setting dark hues of blue and black against

warm ochres, reds, and peaches. This study in foreshortening deftly brings the

faces right off the canvas, and in pieces like "Afterlife" and "Accuse," the

viewer feels strangely close to the image - a psychological tactic borrowed from

Lucien Freud. This similarity is more than coincidental: Harding lists the

contemporary British painter among his primary influences.

Like his

predecessor, Harding draws on the power of suggestion to play on the viewer's

subconscious, as evidenced by his macabre "Afterlife." Hidden under layers of

brightly tinted flesh tones and emblazoned across the child's face, the

suggestion of a skull begins to take shape.

Where the portrait artist

fails, however, is in his novice attempt at composition and scope. Harding has

taken precautions to bring his pieces together under the umbrella of one

thematic mood, but even in a series, viewers would enjoy more variety. The

repetitive nature of the exhibit, evinced by 13 passport-style portraits of

similar size, color scheme, and subject, may be unintentional, but ultimately

the series' redundancy is hard to ignore.

Of particular note, only two

of Harding's subjects appear to be girls, and where one would hope for an

assortment of diverse angles, proportions, and textures, the artist provides no

more than one or two. For an artist of his caliber, Harding takes remarkably few

visual risks.

Photographer and Java Café owner Langlois' exhibit, I Feel

Pretty, Oh So Pretty..., takes a remarkably different approach to portraiture.

Though the collection is small - it fits into one room and is comprised of only

seven pieces - it succeeds in capturing the technical range Harding's work so

conspicuously lacks.

Langlois received a degree in photography before

relocating from the United States to Phnom Penh. She originally came to do aid

work, but eventually decided to open a café that could create a network for

expatriates. The artistic component of her establishment is a nod to her own

days as a student photographer.

I Feel Pretty is Langlois' first public

show and it represents the culmination of several years of off-and-on work in a

private studio.

Having met the subjects of her series while attending a

Mardi Gras celebration in Cambodia, Langlois asked to photograph the Asian

transvestites on a whim.

Enlisting the help of a make-up artist, she

shot them one night at Nexus, the now-defunct discotheque near Independence

Monument. The end product left her with seven large-scale, silver gelatin

glimpses into the transformative lives of Kiki and her friends.

With

regard to format, Langlois' collection is well suited for display alongside

Harding's works. Both series successfully limn those alienated from mainstream

Khmer society, and they each put a premium on portraiture.

The

similarities, however, end there. A stark contrast to Harding's dusky

meditations on the starved and exploited, Langlois' candid drag shots, in all

their action and insouciance, radiate a palpable energy and are more decadent

than desolate.

Langlois' twin "Brides" panels, labeled I and II, capture

the full range of her subjects' dance-like movements. Relying heavily on the

dynamic between light and shadow to energize her portraits, the photographer

clearly knows how to profit from her medium-the brides' blurred faces are

further transfigured by the glint of a strobe light.

The close-up in

"Kiki I" is a masculinized evocation of Garbo's pallid face - and indeed, the

photograph conjures an Old-World decadence that is the essence of drag

performance. A wise move: Langlois fully captures the foggy Hollywood glamour of

her muse.

Even when Langlois' camera lens is shifted into focus, as in

"Bridesmaid," the energy is captivating. A soft white countenance is shown in

natural light, each feature plain and visible. Only the eyes are slightly

blurred, so in place of two, there are four. The effect, though initially

distracting, is also darkly sensuous - a creative flourish that attests to the

artist's skill.

Occasionally, Langlois falters. A few of her prints feel

trite, as though the artist had never heard of Mapplethorpe or Pierre Molinier,

each of whom made careers from recording the appeal of transvestism on film.

Like Harding, Langlois - who freezes facial motion but discounts all other

anatomy - could take more risks.

All in all, however, Langlois has

furnished her gallery with some thoughtful portraits, and the Phnom Penh art

world can certainly benefit from this gifted newcomer. She and Harding have

assembled a noteworthy review, reminding enthusiasts that Cambodian art can be

both socially conscious and pleasing to the eye.

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