US Artist Says Goodbye to Cambodia in Painting Exhibit

Matthew Tito Cuenca has lived in Phnom Penh for three years, but he was just two weeks from leaving the country to return home to the US when he opened his first art show in Cambodia.

His friends, who had seen his artwork privately, insisted he put on an exhibit before leaving.

“He said he wanted to do something, but his fans forced him to finish,” said Megumi Kitabatake, a friend of the artist and owner of the Living Room cafe, which is showcasing Cuenca’s work. “His friends and his fans created this.”

The exhibit, called “Hands and Faces,” shows 14 oil paintings, portraits of Cambodian icons such as monks and Apsara dancers.

Cuenca, 39, grew up in the US and moved to Phnom Penh with his partner to work at the US Embassy. He was trained as a fashion designer, but his first love was art. He has exhibited work in Florida, New York, Los Angeles and Paris. In addition to painting, Cuenca also designs jewelry, sculpts and illustrates children’s books and fantasy role-playing game novels and cards.

Cuenca had to work fast and completed 13 of the 14 pieces for the show in just three weeks, he said.

“I’ve been painting non-stop,” he said on the night of the show’s opening. “Two of the paintings on the wall are still wet.”

Most of Cuenca’s paintings are based on photographs he’s taken all over Thailand and Cambodia. After going through thousands of images, Cuenca crops, modifies colors and shapes, and reinterprets the images to make the paintings not copies, but creations of their own.

Cuenca’s models are conventional images of Cambodia, but a few pieces stand out as not the stuff of postcards.

“Colors,” which seemed to be everyone’s favorite at the June 27 opening, shows four monks, each with a different skin tone and robes of a different shade, their detailed hands the focus of the work. The painting was sold around noon, Cuenca said, before it was even hung.

Most of the show’s 14 pieces were sold before the end of the opening reception, when Cuen­ca’s friends and US Embassy colleagues filled the Living Room’s second floor.

Alexis Mussomeli, 22, a friend of Cuenca’s, made her first art purchase that day, with “Lotus” and “Orchid,” two pieces of a series of three flower-inspired paintings.

“[Lotus] is more romantic, seductive,” she said. “[Orchid] is more demanding.”

The flower series showcases Cuenca’s signature style: stacking several canvases of different shapes to direct the viewer’s gaze where the artist wants it.

“It’s not tricking the eye, but it’s helping the story along,” Cuenca said.

“Hands and Faces” can be seen until July 9 at the Living Room cafe on street 306 in Phnom Penh.

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