Years ago Chov Theanly announced he wanted to be an honest painter.

His work relays this intention with its masterful skill and deep inquiry into life in Cambodia and beyond.

Theanly’s most recent exhibit is at Batia Sarem Gallery in Siem Reap.  This is his first solo exhibition in Siem Reap and runs until February 29, 2020. The gallery walls have been painted to accentuate the commanding color choices of the artist and displayed with plenty of distance between pieces to enable reflective viewing.  Batia Sarem continues their practice of excellent curation of each of their exhibitions.

The exhibit, entitled Rise, represents paintings from 2017 – 2019 and offers the public the rare opportunity to see new refinements from his earlier explorations.

Witnessing the new work it is clear Theany is becoming a master of both detail and technique. Every brushstroke, every color, every choice of attire, and every gesture is given great care, and in doing so Theanly announces that he is absolute in his care. He honors the discipline he learned to admire from other artists and painstakingly practices it. In doing so he is adding an essential layer to the contemporary art of Cambodia, where too few artists find training to learn their craft. Enduring art, in any of its forms, requires mastery of the rules before breaking them. Theanly, committed to learning the craft, now transforms it into pieces that elicit discomfort, thereby making the uncomfortable, comfortable. This is a core function of art in society.

A cardinal rule in the art of theatrical acting is to create tension. Tension is riveting. It is powerful. It reveals the human struggle between opposing forces. Chov Theanly creates a theatrical stage with each painting – one character at a time. Each is struggling to ‘rise’ and ‘strive’ and ‘survive’ the circumstances of their existence.

“Theanly paints individuals from across all sections of Cambodian society. Unknown or familiar, friends or people he has simply passed by in the street, these models are chosen for their aesthetic and representative potential. Theanly always seeks to retell – pictorially – their personal stories. The characters usually adopt the same pose. Their heads are raised, as if they were preparing to take off. They are often painted on a two-coloured background, the two shades forming a demarcation line which passes just above the mouth of the character. The figures in the series Surviving can also be seen as trying to keep their heads above the water.

Beyond their apparent simplicity, his paintings reveal a thought provoking depth which, we believe, is one of the secrets behind the appeal of Theanly Chov’s work. He draws personal stories to tell about a country in mutation. He manages to communicate a deeply pictorial vision – sensitive and palpable – on the theme of individual fulfillment.  His talent, accessible to viewers from different backgrounds, allows everyone to recognize their own failures and successes.”

Yves Zlotowski, Lyvann Loeuk and Martin Phéline

Batia Sarem

 

This is the artist Chov Theanly. To begin to grasp his work it is essential to understand that the idea of ‘six degrees of separation‘ is an active principle in Cambodia, and especially to those interested in the arts and culture.  Whether you are Khmer or a barang (foreigner) you learn about many people through meeting one or two individuals. With just a little bit of homework, you find yourself cognizant of how closely the artists are all braided together. They have collaborated, shared their struggles, and supported each other. Thus, I was aware of Theanly prior to moving to Cambodia, simply by paying attention to Facebook posts about Cambodia’s art. (Facebook is the universal way in which Cambodia communicates its businesses, activities, events, news, and friendships.)  By the time I actually met Theanly, I was aware of his background, approach, and prior work through dozens of others that had crossed my path.

It is our wish that he become cherished far beyond our borders.

Earnest. Gentlemanly. Precise. Unassuming. Deliberate. Disciplined. Curious. Respectful. Reflective. These are words that can be used to describe the persona of Theanly. They are also characteristics he must have embodied as a child since he has used his childhood reflections as a springboard for much of his artistic exploration.  And honest. He is an honest man and an honest painter. 

Like so many artists in Cambodia, Theanley’s roots were in Battambang, the otherworldy city somewhat untainted by tourism and big development. Like other artists, Theanly was influenced by Phare Ponlue Selpack and the many galleries that too frequently come and go: Gallery Make Maek, Gallery Sammaki, Sangker Gallery, and Dana Langlois’s Phnom Penh, Java House.

His early work was done with acrylic and spray paint and graphic design. He turned to oil to master the richer colors the masters used.

Theanly tells his own story succinctly:

“When I was about 4years old, I lived in a book store. On my walls hung posters and paintings by old masters. Those old images touched my heart even as a small child. I could see the magic and happiness in the pictures so vividly, it was as if I could get inside them. I was enchanted. ’That’s when becoming an artist myself became my dream.  

In 1999 I started painting with my uncle who is a sign painter and can paint like an old master. I had been struggling to find a way to learn how to become an artist- I couldn’t read English very well and I had no idea how to use the internet, and so the only way I could learn how to paint was to copy old photos and old paintings for signs. So I had to wait, keep painting, learning English and find something else to do so I could make enough money to study art. 

 In 2004, after I graduated from high school, I wanted to go to Phnom Penh to study painting at the Royal Art University but my family couldn’t afford my living expenses, so I went back to my hometown, Battambang. After returning home, my cousin recommended me to study Graphic Design at a Vocational Training Centre. Unfortunately, the school didn’t have the budget to pay for art classes, so we only had a few art classes per year and so my art education was slow.

 I then secured an internship in Phnom Penh for a company called Cade Advertising. In my free time, I studied English, I kept painting and I learned how to use the internet so I could study English and Chinese, art techniques, concepts, and art history. This is when I met lots of artists and I attended a weekend class on Anatomy by an American teacher named Marc Pollack, which helped me greatly with my art. 

At the end of 2011, I decided to move away from the busy capital city back to sleepy Battambang, which was risky for my future career as an artist. Thankfully, I found a job in a gallery called Sammaki where I worked as a Gallery Manager. But my real passion was to be a full-time artist. So I quit and I just started painting full-time and helping my family.

I was involved in an art festival call Our City Festival for Battambang.  I made huge necktie installations called Urban Ties.  Sometime later, with the help of some of my artist friends, my work was shown to Dana Langlois, who runs Java Arts in Phnom Pehn, and has helped many artists in Cambodia develop their careers. My exhibition at Java sold out and I was invited to exhibit in Singapore. I feel so much more secure and content working as a full-time artist. I feel that developing my practice gives me the chance to share my soul with the world. My painting creates a bridge from Cambodia to the world beyond.” Theanly Chov

Mural Painting by Chov Theanly

 

Like most Battambang artists, Theanly has painted murals on the city’s walls that boldly declare artistic intentions and celebrate the history, life, struggles, and love for their homeland.  “Everything is just very open and creative and collaborative in Battambang,” he tells Claire Knox for a travel article. “There’s an honesty here.”

Theanly has been exploring his character series for years, some times called Surviving, and sometimes referred to as Rising. Many times the observer will recognize the individual in the painting and this adds to the engagement and appreciation of his works. The paintings emit a quiet but sometimes desperate yearning that is felt with each individual portrayed. We know them better if they are already friends…and we know them better even if they are strangers. Viewers come away feeling Cambodia and its people, even as Theanly expresses the universal human yearning to ‘breathe’ above our circumstances and selfhood. He makes us understand ourselves better.

Here are some of his earlier renditions from 2013.

In 2015, Theanly created his Questioning Series and exhibited in Singapore at Utterly Art LLP.  

The Fasting or Starving Buddha is an iconic representation depicting Prince Siddhartha Gautama after six years of self-denial in an effort to end desire and gain release from a repeating cycle of birth, life, death, and suffering. Eventually, Siddhartha realized that fanatical austerity was as unproductive as his former life of incessant luxury, and embraced the Middle Way to enlightenment. By juxtaposing an object of contemporary desire against the backdrop of a Fasting Buddha, Cambodian painter Chov Theanly throws our modern value system into sharp relief. Set against an image of ascetic extremes, each desire loses its potent urgency of the moment and leads to querying of yearning, necessity, and purpose. Humping rabbits signify sex, an egg desire for offspring, a double cheeseburger and bucket of fried chicken food that we crave, sports shoes and a barbell the pursuit of physical perfection. But Theanly also draws on personal experiences and viewpoints – the mortarboard represents higher education, and also alludes to schools which teach what they want you to know, not what you want to learn (Theanly is self-taught and rejected the local art school). The elevation of the Duchamp urinal as a critique to art which is merely beautiful is relevant to his artist’s persona, but while he appreciates conceptual art, he doesn’t always connect to it. Theanly’s simple monochromatic backgrounds make for quiet, meditative paintings that elevate visceral desire into spiritual questioning and contemplation.

Yves Zlotowski, Lyvann Loeuk and Martin Phéline

Yves Zlotowski, Lyvann Loeuk and Martin Phéline

Batia Sarem Gallery, Siem Reap

 

The impact of Theanly’s work on viewers is striking. At the solo exhibition organised by the Lee Gallery in Paris in October 2017, we found that his work touched individuals from all backgrounds, seasoned collectors and non-specialist audience alike. Fans from all over the world came to admire his paintings: Cambodians from Paris of course, but French, Americans, Italians or Chinese all shared the same enthusiasm. Theanly’s work exerts an astonishing fascination. Let us try to identify why.

First, the technical skill evident in the paintings is impressive. When Theanly draws the veins of a forearm, the tension of a muscle, the patterns of a traditional sarong, the luminosity of the skin, we sense his exceptional rigour. We have often heard that a painting was not finished because of a detail that made it unsatisfactory, such as a shadow in the fold of a sleeve or a lock of hair in a nape of the neck. Theanly is a tenacious and meticulous worker.  But of course, he is admired not only for his remarkable technical mastery. A virtuoso talent, definitely, but also impossible to categorise. Is he a hyperrealist? The accuracy with which he represents faces, fabric, bodies could make you think so. Should we, on the contrary, see him as a surrealist? The silhouettes suspended in the air on a strange coloured background could be borrowed from a Salvador Dali dream or the typical floating bodies of Marc Chagall. This synthesis of contrasting approaches contributes to the mystery of his work. The balancing between dream and reality, placing figures firmly rooted in Cambodian society “off the ground”, creates paradoxes that leave the door open to multiple interpretations.

Virtuoso or unclassifiable, the emotion is palpable. His empathy towards his models shines out from each of his canvases. Theanly is undoubtedly a socially-engaged artist in the sense that Cambodian society – insofar as it is a coherent group – is one of his key themes. Old woman, old man, young girl, young man, artist … connected through a similar pose. All his work can then be read as a photograph of a society united by the same goal, that of wanting to rise up or simply survive. Of course, Theanly tells us about Cambodia. Of the difficulty of existing a society that is developing too quickly, marked by many inequalities. But this upward movement also reflects meteoric economic growth and dynamism. Hope – of succeeding in life, improving one’s standard of living, rising socially and individually – is a central topic of his work. His paintings are however ambivalent and the artist leaves them open to interpretation.

A painter from Cambodia, Theanly succeeds in reaching far beyond his compatriots. Let us try a direct reading. The line at the top of the canvas, which separates two colours, emphasises the tension between two worlds, two aspirations, that of the group (pulling downwards) and that of the individual trying to realise his or her potential (pulling upwards). Theanly’s paintings represent the dilemma faced by every individual which is to free oneself from the group while remaining a full member of the social body. He paints the difficulty of reconciling social pressure with following one’s personal dreams. Theanly’s characters are trying to extricate themselves from the group and seem to be succeeding … or not. There is clearly strong social and family pressure in Cambodia, but we all feel this one way or another.

In this respect, the use of colours is remarkable. The two colours of the background are not in conflict but are dissimilar. They can be read as embodying two shades of the same individual. For Theanly, colour is the secret, abstract part of the canvas. The colour tells the inner story of the individual, that which is not expressed and which can only be expressed by painting. So, it may not be that the group and the individual, or the colour at the bottom and the top of the canvas are incompatible. Rather, Theanly evokes a sense of tension that will interpret in their own way.

Beyond their apparent simplicity, his paintings reveal a thought-provoking depth which, we believe, is one of the secrets behind the appeal of Chov Theanly’s work. He draws on personal stories to tell of a changing country. He manages to communicate a deeply pictorial vision – sensitive and palpable – of the theme of individual fulfilment. His talent, accessible to viewers from different backgrounds, allows everyone to recognise their own failures and successes. The team at Batia Sarem is particularly pleased to be showing work by this universally approachable artist in Siem Reap, just as our gallery celebrates its first year. We are confident that every visitor to the exhibition will develop their own interpretation of this body of work, which is both complex and captivating.

My favorite Theanly painting of Touch Khchao, a Battambang artist.