Artist Turns Within to Explore Human Condition

Heng Ravuth’s artwork series “Innermost II” defies time and fashion.

These self-portraits in blue-green and grey tones might have been done two millennia ago in Greece, or at the height of the Italian Renaissance in the early 1500s.

'Innermost 17' by Heng Ravuth (Dana Langlois)
‘Innermost 17’ by Heng Ravuth (Dana Langlois)

And yet the works, whose exhibition opens Wednesday night at Java Cafe, are also very much of today, if only because of the technique he used—combining photography, collage and acrylic paint to give each piece texture and depth.

Mr. Ravuth’s theme could not be more universal: a man delving into himself in order to explore the human condition.

“My obsession with self-portrait is a way of finding myself,” he writes in his artist statement. “Self-portraits allow me to freely express my feeling and project what I want to convey to the viewers.”

This he does through classic nudes. “Nudity, particularly in the Cambodian culture, is uncomfortable and disturbing,” he says. “[Yet] it is who we are…. In the paintings, I try to distort my face and body to expose a hidden characteristic or feeling. I am looking to catch something that a camera cannot do, by creating an atmosphere.”

In Mr. Ravuth’s work “Innermost 17,” a man emerges as the shadow of the one in the foreground, this second man with a mask half covering his face. Set against a blue-green background with a forest in the distance and a masculine leather couch behind them, the bodies of the two figures—shown in deep green and red—are partly covered with mosaic.

In “Innermost 10,” a man looks through the fingers of his hand with which he nearly covers his face. His forehead, hand and dark grey garment are covered with sparkling drops that could be raindrops since the grey background implies a storm, but they could also be interpreted as tears.

Born in Phnom Penh, Mr. Ravuth studied at the Royal University of Fine Arts and afterward trained as a photographer. In addition to Cambodia, his work has been exhibited in Singapore and Canada.

The 29-year-old artist took nearly 10 months to produce this new series, a period that turned into constant confrontation, he said in an interview Thursday. “What was hard for me was using myself and trying to look from a different angle,” he said.

This is the second series that Mr. Ravuth has produced using self-portraits to explore human identity. The first was four years ago.

His latest exhibition will run through April 26 at Java Cafe.

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