Bittersweet Scars

The trees bursting with red flowers lining Phnom Penh’s Sihanouk Boulevard—giving a vibrant hue to the view from Java Cafe’s balcony—are reflected in “The Flame Tree of Knowledge,” Chath Piersath’s favorite painting in his current exhibit, “Scar,” showing at Java.

Almost all of the 29 painted wood boards in the exhibit are portraits—some abstract and some detailed—but the flame trees came unexpectedly, as Mr. Piersath poured paint over a board on which he had been writing letters of the Khmer alphabet in large, acrylic brush strokes.

A painting by Chath Piersath (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
A painting by Chath Piersath (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

As the paint spread over the letters, he said, he began to remember the trees—with blossoms like fire—in his home village in rural Banteay Meanchey province, where he had recently returned to visit his sister.

“I started to paint the trees over the letters of the alphabet—it’s kind of like this buried knowledge that I was thinking about,” he said. “[In Cambodia] there are all of these ancient possibilities and ancient knowledge that are secret and no one has discovered yet.”

As much as the painting became about Cambodian culture, its creation is rooted in Mr. Piersath’s own life story. Having lost confidence in his ability to read and write in Khmer since becoming a refugee in the U.S. in 1981, the board became a practice worksheet, and brought back memories of home.

“My life experiences are this kind of bittersweet,” Mr. Piersath said. “There is a lot of sorrow and sadness and grief, but at the same time there’s a lot of love and humanity and hope and faith and excitement and all of that stuff. For me, my journey is about that search, that process of trying to find that sweetness and owning the bitterness.”

This juxtaposition of joyous and painful moments in life inspired the theme of Mr. Piersath’s series—“scar” in English sounds similar to the Khmer word for sugar. The series explores the emotional and physical scars that humans carry, as well as those they impress upon others as they struggle to recover from these wounds.

From pocket- to window-sized, the mixed-media works on boards are scattered on the walls of Java’s top floor. The paintings were made during a two-month artist’s residency with JavaArts earlier this year, but many are reworked paintings from past series.

The exhibition, which includes journal entries of Mr. Piersath’s artistic experience, was launched to a crowded room of artists and enthusiasts on July 29 and will run through September 4. Mr. Piersath, whose artwork has been displayed regularly at Java since 2003 in addition to exhibits overseas, was in the U.S. and unable to attend the opening.

“There’s something nearly vulgar about some of these,” Max Stone, an artist from the U.S. living in Phnom Penh, said during opening night. “It has a bit of emotion in it, for me.”

The vulgarity of the paintings may come from Mr. Piersath’s rough artistic style or the lack of cohesiveness of the exhibit, with no two works following the same aesthetic.

Mr. Piersath said the technique he used throughout the series was to thin acrylic paint with water to create a resemblance to watercolors, but the approach has a different effect in each painting. In some, faces can barely be deciphered, while the eyes in another resemble the bold black outlines of ancient Egyptian artworks.

While there are shards of stories and vivid emotions in his artwork that speak to the experiences of others in the Cambodian diaspora, Mr. Piersath said he doesn’t see his work as being part of Khmer culture. Instead, he said, the works are part of an exploration to find his place in a bittersweet world.

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