Battambang-based painter Chov Theanly is quick to point out that he doesn’t “judge” his subjects – he studies them. He is deeply curious about their inner worlds, and the way they choose to project themselves for others.
“The most fascinating thing for me is the difference between the reality and the fantasy world – what people try to do to get better in their life. It’s such a big contrast,” he says, and one he believes speaks to rapid changes in Cambodian society.
Theanly explores this contrast in his second solo exhibition in Cambodia, Srava-L’erng (Striving), which opens in Phnom Penh next week. He is intent on careful portraiture, and has developed a distinctive – and simple – style over the course of his career that draws on influences from the Cambodian master Nhek Dim to 19th-century Russian painters.
His new series of 11 oil paintings showcases the artist’s penchant for symbolism, as well as a rich cast of characters – some of whom are adapted from reality. In Lotus, an older figure seated on a lotus leaf turns her back on the rising skyline in the background in pursuit of things beyond the earthly realm.
Theanly says he painted her from a woman he noticed at a Buddhist ceremony. “She looked at other people in different ways,” he explains. “The way she talks, it sounds a bit like she is there already – in heaven. She just didn’t want to learn anything about society.”
In Princess in the Slum, Theanly explores the phenomenon of the village wedding – a form of “striving” with which he is quite familiar. A glimmering bride in the centre of the canvas stands out against the rubbish riddled among her village, where a pig grazes to her left. On her right, a man urinates into a bush.
“At these weddings, I see this ridiculous tent. The bride, the groom – they dress up like prince and princess. It does make me wonder: Is this necessary?” he says. “It doesn’t matter how rich or how poor you are, you try to look like a princess. It may not be real, but you do it anyway.”
Theanly says he draws influence from the aesthetic simplicity of “old master painters”, but the intent behind his art is quite nuanced, sharply focused on narrative and objective critique. “Art is way beyond beauty,” he says. “I had to leave it and move on to another level.”
Theanly, who lives with his family and paints in a shophouse studio overlooking the Sangkae river, says the time may soon come when he also moves on from his hometown. “There needs to be a bridge from the Battambang art world to the main art world,” he says.
It’s “a bit small”, he points out, and Theanly looks to opportunities – and subjects – beyond its limits. The artist, too, is striving.
Srava-L’erng (Striving) opens Wednesday, November 23, at 6:30pm at Java Café and Gallery, #56 Sihanouk Boulevard. The exhibition will run through January 7.