Along With Orchids, French Artist Experiments With ‘Tattoos’

When French painter Thomas-Pierre arrived in Cambodia six years ago “to paint Angkor’s temples,” as he puts it, he was primarily an abstract painter.

This quickly changed. “What profoundly moved me is the luxuriant vegetation here,” he said in an interview this week.

'Orchid-40' (Thomas-Pierre)
‘Orchid-40’ (Thomas-Pierre)

Without being wholly conscious of it, Mr. Thomas-Pierre adopted a figurative style to paint buildings in their natural settings, developing a technique that involved a golden glaze, glue and thick layers of paint to create relief and convey the lushness of the environment.

For his latest exhibition, “Orchids and Tattoos,” opening Friday at the InterContinental Hotel’s Insider Gallery in Phnom Penh, Mr. Thomas-Pierre went a step further and let the rich vegetation fully engulf his imagination.

In the process, he rediscovered abstract art, he said. “I regained somehow the joy of painting, which I had a decade ago.”

This journey back happened as he painted Cambodia’s orchids. “They have a very distinctive design that I truly appreciate,” Mr. Thomas-Pierre explained. “Those colors, which are extraordinary, I wanted to highlight in my own way.”

Orchids, or kesorkol in Khmer, are one of the country’s many natural riches, with more than 120 declared species of wild orchids and hundreds more slated for official recognition.

In most paintings, Mr. Thomas-Pierre focused on a single flower that he magnified to fill canvases as large as 1.4-by-1.7 meters, using the technique he previously developed to create texture.

“I do, in fact, extrapolate the flower,” he said. “There is this form, this basis that is the orchid, which one can always recognize.

“And then I reinvent the flower, each time, with its thousands of delicate colors.”

In the work entitled “Hanabi-20,” the two halves of a golden-brown orchid—with a black stem of herringbone design in the middle—are spread over a rose-red background, the orchid more a suggestion than a flower.

The “tattoos” in the exhibition’s title refers to Mr. Thomas-Pierre’s name, which appears in some paintings. “For a long time, I was not signing my paintings,” he said. “I believed that the image stood by itself and I did not want to add another element.”

In this series, Mr. Thomas-Pierre treated his name as a design component—an element that varies widely from image to image. In “Orchid-40,” his name, painted in white Gothic letters on a black band, shares the focus with a yellow, orange and red flower. In the copper, green and gray “Tattoo 31,” the name in relief is more abstraction than a readable signature.

Born in 1973, Mr. Thomas-Pierre is the son of two artists and a lifelong artist himself.

The exhibition, which opens Friday at 6 p.m. at the Insider Gallery, runs through February 7.

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