Surprising Parallels Found in an Unlikely Artistic Collaboration

Heng Sinith’s photos are full of ghosts. The shadows of recent history fill his frames, falling across the faces of squatters whose homes have been burned down, over former Khmer Rouge battlefields and villages still locked in the grinding cycle of rural labor.

Molly McKinney’s paintings gently echo the hard facts of modern Cambodia presented by Heng Sinith’s photography. Delicate layers of texture and tone are built up on her canvases, mirroring Heng Sinith’s theme of the symbiosis between history and emotion.

Together, the two artists’ pieces form a balance between the actual and the abstract that is precisely expressed by the exhibition’s title “Reciprocal Works.” The show is at Monu­ment Gallery until May 25.

A collaboration by the Cambodian photojournalist and the painter from the US state of Minnesota may at first glance seem unlikely. McKinney admits that in may ways their art, like their origins, are continents apart.

“I’m painting from the inside out, which is in a way the opposite of what Sinith is doing,” McKinney said. While her acrylic, gouache and ink paintings have no figurative focus, in Heng Sinith’s images, the medium of photography is used in its most traditional manner. Each of his photos presents a clear narrative; McKinney’s work, in contrast, asks the on­looker to find his own narrative within it.

But when the two friends sat down with a collection of their work recently, they were both struck by the strong connection between their pieces. Paint and print hang together in themed groups. Forms and colors are reflected from piece to peice, as is the emotional tone that unites their work most powerfully.

Both Heng Sinith and McKinney created the pieces in “Reciprocal Works” throughout the year 2001. While Heng Sinith’s photographs document a year that saw floods, fires and hardship continue to tear at the nation’s infrastructure, McKinney’s references to actual events are far less defined.

Nonetheless, she says the artistic affinity she shares with the photographer comes, in part, because they work from the same subject matter. “The way that our work came together so well was a strange affirmation for me that I was painting about Cambodia,” she said. “[Painting] is my way of digesting living here. For me, living in Cambodia has been not just pictures but a whole experience, which is what I’m trying to convey in my painting.”

Heng Sinith said his photos are much more than simple images. “Each of my photos is like an opinion, my opinion,” he said.

“I like to show the Cambodian situation [in  my photos]. The Cambodian prison, as I call it.”

One striking glimpse of this “prison” is the photograph “Slum Fire,” in which a young girl is framed by a curling black tower of smoke rising from her burning home in a Phnom Penh squatter village. Among panic-stricken people trying to save their belongings from the flames, the expression of terror and distress on her face is breathtaking.

McKinney’s painting “Internal Combus­tion,” which hangs beside “Slum Fire,” is a vertical banner of tangled line and form, in the middle of which bright red brush marks form shocking centers of sensation. Suggesting sharp points of pain surrounded by a confusion of noise and movement, the painting forms a concise emotional echo of the photo that it accompanies.

McKinney says her principal subjects are the “things going on in our psyche that we’re not aware of, that affect our outlook.” Like human memory and perception, her paintings are made up of layers built up gradually—sometimes over the course of weeks—to form a mysterious, fragile composition.

Although photography is an instant, very direct process, McKinney feels a similar sense of built-up expression in Heng Sinith’s works. “Sinith’s photos are loaded with layers of association,” she said.

“Being a photojournalist is like being a reporter,” Heng Sinith said. “You have to try to find an interesting visual story in every scene. Your eyes have to be able to see things differently from everybody else.”

One such unusual view is offered in the photo “Khmer Rouge Remnants in the Mekong River.” The picture shows two small boys digging for scrap metal in the sand banks of the Chroy Changvar peninsula, just across the river from Phnom Penh’s Sisowath Boulevard. Beside the children lies an un­earthed rocket almost as big as their own naked frames, while in the photo’s hazy background rise the spires of the Royal Palace.

“I want to show the danger, still so close to the city in 2001,” Heng Sinith said. “Just two or three hundred meters away from the Royal Palace, you still have rockets like this one.”

“Reciprocal Works” leaves the observer with the stark sensation that, beneath the layers of events that wash over history, the ghosts are still close by in modern Cambodia.

 

 

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