This new work by Heng Ravuth picks up the theme from his last solo exhibition of the same title in 2011, Innermost II. It is a series of mixed media canvases depicting the artist in different positions of repose and movement. Ravuth refers to making his self-portraits as an “obsession” to express emotion, vulnerability and personal truth. Although the artist uses his own body and face to create the compositions, he distorts his identity to minimize the personal narrative. He sees himself not as a messenger but the medium.
Ravuth starts first with the composition of his body which he captures with photography. This image is then reproduced in miniature, the colors altered and repeated a hundred times or more. Working with the very small prints, he applies them to the canvas in a composition that echoes the original, but further manipulated with paint, distortion and repetition—a process that allows the artist to investigate the complexities of the inner mind. He seeks to expose a hidden characteristic or emotion, to go further than what the camera can capture.
Since early on, Ravuth has worked with the body and self as a medium—particularly the nude body. The nude body, for him, represents the tension between the private and public self. Nudity has a tradition in Cambodia, like the bare-breasted Apsaras sculpted on ancient temples. However modern iterations are mostly paintings of sexualized figures of women carrying out daily tasks, like fetching water or resting on a rock. In contemporary works, artists like Oeur Sokuntevy uses nudity in her paintings to express independence or fragility; Khvay Samnang inserts his own naked body in contention with the geo-political history of the sites where he performs; and Prumsodun Ok, has pushed the boundaries of classical Cambodian dance, embodying “empowered sexuality” with minimal clothing and sensualized choreography.
Ravuth says, “Nudity, particularly in the Cambodian culture, is uncomfortable and disturbing as it reveals the very intimate and private parts of our bodies that we don’t usually talk about. It also has connotations of shame and indignity and therefore we try to hide it. Even though we try to cover our nudity with clothes, it is who we are.”
Using his body to convey meaning, Ravuth avoids a directed narrative. Like his contemporaries in performance, his body is the medium and offers an interpretive moment of self-discovery actuated by mystery and curiosity.