I response to the death of Cambodian painter Svay Ken, collectors in Phnom Penh have contributed privately held artwork to Java Arts Cafe for a limited retrospective titled “Svay Ken – a Tribute: Because we loved him.”
Svay Ken died Dec. 15, 2008, at the age of 76. The show at Java is the first since the painter’s death and comprises works from 1996 to 2008.
“Svay Ken can be called the Picasso of Cambodia,” says artist Bradford Edwards, who curated the show at Java. “He was the country’s premier painter.”
Svay Ken was prolific. It’s estimated that he completed as many as 2,000 paintings during a relatively brief period of output, Edwards points out. Twenty-four of those paintings are on display at Java through March.
Svay Ken began painting around 1990, but did not start producing in earnest until 1995, when he met Ed Fitzgerald, a local TV producer, who sponsored him with paints, canvas and living expenses.
Svay Ken’s style of painting can be grouped under the rubric of “naive art,” a genre of art often marked by an unnatural perspective, strong use of patterns and unrefined colors.
But Edwards calls Svay Ken a “smart naive.” His artistic style was choice, not the result of limited artistic talents.
“He consciously chose this style to best express and document the life around him, the people and stuff of his own life really,” Edwards says.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Svay Ken’s work was his ability to “accidentally reference” modern masters. Svay Ken eschewed any interest in art history.
One painting in the exhibit, for example, a hotel poolside composition, appears to come directly from David Hockney’s oeuvre. Another, a stunningly sparse painting of a wooden window, is directly reminiscent of Agnes Martin.
It’s certain that Svay Ken never knew of the fabled painter’s artworks because there were no art books of any kind in his home or studio.
Nothing in “A Tribute” is for sale. The artwork all belongs to private collectors or the estate of Svay Ken.
Viewers are asked to contribute their own reflections to the display.
Next to each of the 24 paintings are what Edwards calls “town squares,” roughly sketched boxes drawn directly on the gallery walls where viewers are asked to jot down their thoughts on the paintings and the man behind them.
“A Tribute” is on display at Java through March.