The Child Within

Growing up during Cambodia’s civil war and Khmer Rouge regime, Em Riem didn’t have pretty pictures of animals in his bedroom, like kids in other countries. He had nothing.

So for people like himself who weren’t able to have a real childhood, Mr. Riem has produced his series “Nature II.” 

Em Riem stands next to his artwork (Siv Channa)
Em Riem stands next to his artwork (Siv Channa)

“Those paintings are for all children at heart,” he said.

The series of oil paintings consists of close-ups of animals set against vibrant red or yellow backdrops on 1.6 square-meter canvasses.

Rather than placing the beasts in pastoral settings, Mr. Riem opted for plain, one-color backgrounds to create a pop art type of feel, he said. “I picked red because it’s the color of courage: to keep on living and working. And yellow, which is the color of Asia, and also of relaxation.”

The result is big, bright and bold works that make you want to smile.

Working from photos—no macaque or even a cow can ever be coaxed into standing immobile for a painter—Mr. Riem spent two years on the series, intent on depicting each animal in careful detail.

The trickiest animals to paint turned out being those with black coats, such as gorillas, he said. “One does not simply put black,” Mr. Riem explained. “It’s full of colors: violet, light green, dark green, blue. There is the reflection of the sun, of the earth, of the air to render.”

Yet, Mr. Riem’s favorite animal turned out to be one of the gorillas. “I love the gentle expression in his eyes,” he said. “Painting him was hard work—so many colors to depict his nose. But I loved it: He was my favorite.”

Mr. Riem hopes that his series, which also includes a giraffe, cows and rhinoceros, will appeal not only to the child in each of us, but also to those who love animals, who try to prevent cruelty towards them and who want to stop the destruction of animals in the wild.

The 42-year-old artist and designer, who studied at the Royal University of Fine Arts in the 1990s and then in France, divides his time between painting in the morning and working as a designer in the afternoon.

He currently is working with the Ministry of Industry and Handicrafts to help design packaging for farm products such as coffee, tea, pepper and fish sauce. This effort is part of the Dutch project SPIN, which stands for Sustainable Product Innovation.

Mr. Riem, who mainly sells his works to overseas collectors, has sold four paintings since the opening of his exhibitionTuesday at X-Em Design on street 178.

Ever versatile, he plans to tackle abstracts in his next series. The exhibition runs through June.

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