In ‘Striving,’ Artist Probes Ties Between Fantasy and Reality

Can hope for a better life lead to make-believe? And when does dream become delusion?

Painter Chov Theanly is both puzzled and captivated by those who assume personas while virtually ignoring the world that surrounds them, and his latest exhibition of paintings explores this dichotomy in oils.

‘Super Hero,’ an oil painting by Chov Theanly. (Yean Reaksmey)
‘Super Hero,’ an oil painting by Chov Theanly. (Yean Reaksmey)

“The reason I call the series ‘Striving’ is that they behave in a certain way because they believe it is the way to happiness. I’m not criticizing. I just want to know…what they believe in,” he said. “It’s really fascinating to see the contrast between people’s fantasy and reality.”

In one of his paintings, a young Cambodian man stands in a superhero cape and mask while, behind him, an old woman leans heavily on her cane and three barefoot monks walk in line, holding their alms bowls. Titled “Super Hero,” the painting is done in matte colors against a smoky-gray background.

In “Untitled I,” a Khmer classical dancer in full traditional costume and headgear performs in a lush scenery of green fields and blue-gray sky, oblivious to the boxer lying unconscious behind her with his gloves still on. High above them, a spark of gold light shines out of a white paper lantern.

“It’s the hope of people,” Mr. Theanly said. “And you don’t know how it will end.”

The 31-year-old artist from Battambang City grew up around an uncle who was a calligraphist and worked with sign painters, some of them renowned artists specializing in cinema signs in the 1960s and early 1970s, he said.

Their realism so captivated Mr. Theanly that he apprenticed with sign painters. The tradition is reflected in his own art. “I wanted to study realistic painting because I see the beauty, the stories in real society, in ordinary life.”

As a child, Mr. Theanly found school rather challenging until his friends helped him realize that he had dyslexia, which can cause learning difficulties. But he always loved to draw and paint, he said.

“Even when I was very young, I would see a story in nature around me—the colors, you know, the beauty. It made me want to paint immediately, even when I did not know the purpose of painting.”

Mr. Theanly also studied graphic design and worked in the field for a few years in Phnom Penh.

Outside Cambodia, Mr. Theanly’s paintings have been exhibited in Singapore and France, and he is scheduled to have a solo show in Paris and another in New York next year.

The exhibition at Java Cafe runs through January 6.

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