Em Riem Returns to Artistic Freedom

For the second time in recent years, artist Em Riem has shifted from painting figurative works to abstracts, with his latest series “Hello, Sally.”

For him, alternating between the two art forms is a matter of sanity.

Cambodian artist Em Riem (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Cambodian artist Em Riem (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

“I like to work in figurative art because it depicts reality and involves rules and discipline,” he said. For his previous series, “Nature,” Mr. Riem spent days rendering the gentleness he had perceived in a gorilla’s eyes.

“But since I’m also a designer, I soon want something new, movement, spontaneity,” the 43-year-old artist said. “Abstract is freedom.”

But then, an artist may lose himself in so much freedom, which is why he has been going from one form to the other in recent years, he said.

The acrylic paintings in Mr. Riem’s latest series, being shown at The Plantation hotel in Phnom Penh, vibrate with life, exuding a quiet and contagious joy.

Some of the works, such as one in which a soft fuchsia cloud stands on a background of blue and green, suggest impressionist depictions of flowers and greenery taken one step further to render them abstract.

In another painting, yellow, blue and mauve ribbons of colors spring from the upper right corner of the work and move at great speed across the canvas, inspired by rivers’ water flow, Mr. Riem said.

The name of the exhibition “Hello, Sally” is a nod to Sally Gabori, an Australian artist who began to paint in her 80s and soon became famous for her abstracts. She is turning 90 this year.

“One day, I was visited by someone from Australia who asked me whether I knew Mrs. Sally,” Mr. Riem said. “I did not. But it seemed that my last abstract series [‘Infinity’] was reminiscent of her work.”

As he researched Ms. Gabori, he discovered similarities with the aboriginal artist. Having studied at the Royal University of Fine Arts in the 1990s, Mr. Riem painted at first in centuries-old Cambodian style, developing his own aesthetic identity later on when he studied in France.

“We’ve had a similar journey,” Mr. Riem said, as both he and Ms. Gabori built on their people’s tradition with their own style of abstraction.

“This is why I named my series of abstracts ‘Hello, Sally,’ imagining her walking in front of me—love at first sight,” Mr. Riem said.

The series took Mr. Riem nearly one year to complete. And already, he is planning his next one, a figurative series of portraits of Cambodians painted in black and white on rice-bag canvases.

His current exhibition ends October 20.

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