Chath Piersath isn’t your typical Khmer painter. His use of acrylic and canvas is hardly traditional, and he paints no glorious depictions of temples or idyllic rural landscapes.
“For many Cambodians, my paintings are ugly,” the 40-year-old psychologist once wrote about his work. “The people I paint have large eyes and funny gestures. They’re not pictures of smiling Cambodians. Definitely, they are not paintings of Angkor Wat or a beautiful Khmer woman in translucent shirts carrying a water jug. I paint portraitures of feelings, often in dark colors, experiences and significant events in my life.”
Shadows of a fractured past are evident in all his work, and his latest exhibit, “Stolen Narratives,” which opens at Java Cafe and Gallery on Jan 6, seems only to punctuate the trajectory of his creative development.
“The main focus of his production is not what the paintings are about,” explains gallery owner Dana Langlois, “but solely his own obsessive search for images, with which he aims to reconstruct a past that was violently erased from his personal life.”
Chath Piersath uses images from sources including newspapers, advertisements and the Internet. He assembles collages with the pieces, then paints over them with his own memories and observations.
His paintings are unique in that they are closer to performance art than classical paintings, and the finished products are like puzzles.
“The resulting work alludes to further visual fragmentation, instead of a completion,” Langlois says. “The work can never be achieved. In that, it becomes a metaphor for life.”
Born in Banteay Meanchey province in 1970, Chath Piersath landed in the United States in 1981 as a refugee from the Pol Pot regime. He earned a BA and an MA in social psychology. He began painting 10 years ago as a way of dealing with his memories of war and violence.
Chath Piersath returned to Cambodia in 1994, and he continues to share time between here and the U.S. In Cambodia, he volunteers as a social worker when he is not busy painting.
William Graef works with skulls and skeletons and has come up with some interesting creations. His “Know-it-All” works on display at Java Cafe & Gallery this month are referred to as “gecko skull masks.”
His works are meant to reflect how geckos are observers on Cambodia’s walls at a time when the country is undergoing tremendous change.
“Reflecting this shifting lifestyle, these enlarged skulls of the gecko become a medium expressing contemporary culture through common materials mined from everyday life in the Kingdom,” he said.
Graef spends a lot of time making art in Cambodia. When he’s not doing that, he can be found at his studio in Manhattan’s East Village in New York.
He studied engineering at the University of Michigan and earned a fine arts degree at the Pratt Institute.