For painter Chhim Sothy, standing in his Phnom Penh studio, the image of three deer trying to escape a forest under destruction is clear. For others, the mix of green, red and dark yellow makes less sense.
“At first glance, the painting depicts nothing, because abstract art requires more time to understand it,” said the 41-year-old abstract artist, who is currently displaying 22 of his latest paintings at the Reyum Gallery in Phnom Penh.
It has been a long road. Born in Kandal province, Chhim Sothy received his Bachelor of Arts, in painting, in 1995, after spending 10 years at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh. After graduating, he worked for several non-governmental organizations, as a painting instructor, until moving over to the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts in 1998, where he is a deputy director in the department of craftsmen.
Along the way, he practiced painting and was noted for well-balanced traditional paintings. But in recent years, he has moved to abstract painting, a contemporary art form that eschews the traditional depiction of visible realty.
“It is of course hard to read the abstract ideas in the painting, but this kind of art enables people to learn so that they can understand our mind,” he said.
Abstract art, he now argues, can make Cambodia competitive with other countries. “We cannot use our traditional paintings to compete with others, as the paintings cannot be understood internationally, so we just preserve the traditional and use the modern art to compete.”
Chhim Sothy has won several prizes in painting competitions: an Asean Art Award in Singapore, in 2002, and 1st Prize for the best painter in 2003 and 2004 from the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.
He has also displayed his paintings in galleries in Phnom Penh and the provinces of Battambang, Koh Kong and Preah Sihanouk. His abstract paintings were also displayed in the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, China, Laos, Vietnam, France and the US.
“The more difficult to understand the painting is, the better,” Chhim Sothy, said, citing the works by Vasily Kandinsky and Pablo Picasso as examples. “Their paintings were unique; thus, they cost millions of dollars,” he said.
Abstract paintings also showcase freedom inherent in art, he said. “I can express my own feelings and use my imagination through this kind of abstract art.”