Chath Piersath is a passionate man. Painting, writing or speaking, he exudes intensity.
But there's an ironic aspect to this painter and poet - a key player in Cambodia's
fledgling contemporary art scene. Like the archetypal sad clown, the vibrant Chath's
conversation often turns to sorrow.
Born in Banteay Meanchey in 1970, artist Chath Piersath came of age during the 1980s in the United States. His latest exhibition, "Lights and Shadows," is on display at Java Café and Gallery through February 25.
"My paintings do express a certain degree of sadness, because I am sad,"
he wrote in the introduction to his current exhibition "Lights and Shadows,"
now showing at Java Café and Gallery until February 25.
"Sometimes while painting, I weep. Sometimes while driving, I wail. I find little
happiness merely existing on this planet, amidst all this human suffering hitting
In person, 36-year-old Chath wields a puckish wit and boyish mischief. His love of
life, and art, is irrepressible.
"Artists give us something gorgeous, something to savor. It's like having good
sex," Chath told the Post. "Art has a role in providing a door for people
to experience life in different ways."
Westernized and cosmopolitan, Chath is an urbane bohemian who'd likely command an
audience in any arty New York city café. But he is also an outsider, disillusioned
by, and mistrustful of the West.
"The saddest place is the US," Chath said. "Sometimes I think the
more a culture becomes technically advanced, the more the separation -- the sense
of community goes. People here may say, I get enough to eat, I have my family --
I am happy; but in the US they might say [it when] they have a jet plane."
Chath says he yearns to find a home and deeper purpose in the world. He says he's
never been completely comfortable in Cambodia.
"But this is the only country I have that I feel less invisible in," he
said. "My work often describes this uncertainty in my life."
Chath's role as an "outsider" began early in life. He was born in Banteay
Meanchey province in 1970, but came to the US as a refugee in 1981. He gained a Master's
degree in Community Social Psychology from the University of Massachusetts. He returned
to Cambodia for the first time in 1994, and has been back three more times, working
as paid and volunteer staff for various NGOs. Chath sometimes uses art to work with
those traumatized by war, social inequity and injustice.
"Sometimes I'm grateful I'm American," said Chath. "Social status
and the whole materialistic world are very important here - it's damaging when the
society operates in that way. But I love the Cambodian people because they are so
resilient. Despite all the suffering they came out on top."
He first exhibited in Cambodia in 2003 - also at the Java Gallery.
"I had never studied painting," Chath states in his gallery bio. "I
began painting in 2000 as a way of exorcising life's unbearable memory of war, experience
of human miseries and sense of despair."
In 2006, Chath spent eight months at the L'Ecole des Beaux Arts in France on a French
government scholarship, studying media art.
"Chath is one of the most honest artists I know," said Dana Langlois, Java
Gallery owner and director of Sala Artspace, a Cambodian contemporary arts organization.
"He communicates only what he feels is true to himself. He's self-taught --
along the lines of naive art or 'art brut,' referencing a more primitive style."
Langlois said over half of his 85 pieces had already sold.
"People have said it's very moving, striking, intense with emotion, but [some]
don't buy because it's dark work and they can't put it in their homes," Langlois
Chath says a lot of the darkness stems from the ominous sense of fear that pervades
"This place sometimes frightens me," said Chath. "I feel vulnerable.
I feel small. Here it's unpredictable, uncertain - that's part of the fear. Beneath
the smile there's sometimes more to be said."
The majority of Chath's work depicts faces.
"I paint Cambodian faces, but they are not very Khmer," he said.
A striking feature of the exhibition is Chath's poetry, which hangs on the walls
alongside his faces. Prostitution and transgenderism are dominant themes.
"I know about working girls, because I'm gay, and they are more open,"
says Chath, who in 2003 organized Cambodia's first gay pride event. He is relaxed
and open about his sexuality and has no political agenda as a "gay artist."
Chath is concerned that the Cambodian public values the wrong things in art.
"You know what they ask me? Not about the art, but how much they were sold for,"
Chath is optimistic, however, about the future of contemporary art in the Kingdom.
"Because of people like Pich [Sopheap] and Dana supporting the work with Sala
Arts, Cambodians like to work here. There are some really good young artists who
really think about their vision and intentions."
Chath dreams of creating a school where young people can participate in their country's
development - free from outside influence.
"[A place where they can] see their strengths and visions, so they become leaders
and visionaries. They won't drive a Lexus - they'll ride a bicycle. We had that kind
of leader once: Jayavarman VII. He was accessible. A leader who says you can do it
- you can build Angkor Wat," Chath said.