Familiar Images of Cambodia Revealed in Unfamiliar Ways

All along Street 178, nearly identical art shops sell nearly identical oil paintings of too-familiar scenes: the woman with the water bucket. Angkor Wat.

But from one of the storefronts, different images appear: a hand-tinted black-and-white photo of a cyclo driver, asleep in his vehicle, his head lolling to one side. Uni­dentifiable shapes painted with curving lines and muted tones. Cartoonish Cambodian scenes in bright primary colors. A naked woman in profile sitting in a closet, her white-gloved hands clas­p­ed as if in prayer.

The Klick gallery, at 65 Street 178, opened Nov 30 with an exhibition of four foreign artists which will run through Dec 29.

Its owner, Swiss-Italian photographer Pierre Poretti, and the other art­ists hope to encourage Cam­bodian artists to seek more personal expression—and use fewer commercial cliches—in their work.

“In the art at the rest of the shops on this street, there’s no individual world opened up and ex­pressed,” said Mondo, an Ital­ian painter and photographer who uses only one name.

“So this show is a proposition. It’s four individuals doing their thing, doing art not just for the sale factor.”

Maybe the street’s other artists will be inspired by the Klick show to depart from convention—and “maybe they will even see that it sells,” Mondo said.

In Mondo’s paintings, washed-out human figures in close-up find themselves in strange circumstances: one sits in a closet, another rests her head on a chair cushion. In his vivid color photos, Cam­bodian children are separated from the viewer by a wooden trellis or a car window.

“My photos are close-up realities,” Mondo said. “There are al­ways people in my realities and, al­though I am so close to them, I am still feeling some barriers.”

Murni, Mondo’s wife, is a Bali­nese painter whose biomorphic abstractions have caused a stir in Indonesia. Their sexually suggestive forms violate cultural ta­boos—more so because the artist is a wo­man, Mondo said.

In a series of small, square canvases, a single shape against a monochromatic background appears to represent a Miro-esque vision from a fantasy or dream.

Less unsettling are the “happy paintings” by French-Canadian artist Stephane Delapree, a former cartoonist, who signs his works “Stef.”

In bright, flat tones on canvas or a tree-bark paper called saa, freely drawn Cambodians go about their lives with smiles.

“For me it was evident that [Cam­bodians] are poor, but they are happy,” Stef said. “I tried to paint this country and see only the nicer side—I believe this country is a very happy country somewhere.”

In one canvas, three smiling Bud­dhist monks in vivid orange robes are shown against a gold background, each carrying a metal lunch box or a bunch of flow­ers. The effect is sweetly disarming.

“This gallery will open up Cambodian art to a new kind of pro­duction,” Stef predicted. “It will help people to have a different view of art.”

Like the others, Poretti’s work focuses on individual experiences and interior worlds. In a still-unfinished series of photos, cyclo drivers snooze, bodies crumpled in repose. The photos are black-and-white, but the human figures have been delicately colorized with soft watercolor.

“I am trying to express the interior situation of the cyclo drivers—they are living, but at that moment [during sleep] they are completely disconnected from the world around them,” Poretti said.

For Poretti, who lived in Bali for 17 years before coming to Phnom Penh last year, Cambodia is rich in inspiration. “I came here be­cause I needed a new subject. The cyclos, the children, the rubbish—there are so many new stories here,” he said. “There is a lot of stimulation.”

 

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