WHAT PROJECT ARE YOU WORKING ON AT PRESENT?
I am working on a follow up to my last exhibition that is exploring the landscape, and how human emotion becomes attached to that landscape.
Landscapes don’t change, mountains don’t change, they don’t morph themselves into other shapes in one human being’s lifetime or even a hundred years.
So I asked myself how is it possible that the same person looks at that mountain 10 years later and has a completely different emotion? It is the same mountain, but different emotion.
Is it to do with the artist’s maturity? Is it to do with the artist’s knowledge or ignorance? Or has something happened in the painter’s life that has made them look at it differently? I use the mountain as an example but it could be the ocean, the forest, a river or even a house. But essentially it is a landscape.
When you live in a house as a child, or your old school and you go back and see it again, the house doesn’t feel the same. Maybe it doesn’t feel as secure, or as large. Something about it seem almost trivial. These are all part of the human emotions that we carry. As a painter I am trying to search for a way to link these emotions to the landscape. It’s more than saying it’s a ‘human’s thing’, it has to do with emotions. By trying to make the connection, it allows me to understand who I am as well and what my purpose is as a painter. I am asking myself what values lie in this moment, this aspect, so I can isolate what I need and create a language.
You can’t just paint the tree for the sake of painting a tree: there are millions of painters that have painted a tree and millions of painters painting mountains. I want to understand what’s the significance to me and understand the urgency to paint that particular scene.
I do believe that there is something quite spiritual taking place, and you can call that maturity if you like. I like to think it’s more spiritual, something greater than us.
Painting landscapes is nothing new. But if you look at history, out of thousands of landscape paintings throughout the world, there are only a handful that have made a significant change and I think they are quite possibly searching for spirituality as well.
AP: Some works are more ‘felt’?
Yes, more heart felt, more sensitive in a way.
That’s what I am trying to develop, and I am not quite sure how long that’s going to take. I might need a few lifetimes..
CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR ART PRACTICE IN RELATION TO THE LANDSCAPE?
What is your medium of choice (if any) and how does it influence your work?
What is your preferred exposure to the landscape? Plein-air? Residencies? Memory?
Most of my large works are painted in the studio, but they are based on studies executed plein-air. These are smaller works, easier to transport and manage when bushwalking for half a day to get to a location.
When I was younger, I used to just take a bag with some food and carry my canvases and watercolours in a backpack. I’d disappear into the mountains for a few day drawing, camping and painting on the side of a mountain, 200ft above sea level, with a million stars.
It’s a quest. It’s always been a quest -to find beauty.
But in terms of my practice, yes, I do a lot of preliminary works involving watercolours, charcoal, drawings and small oils as well. It allows me to understand composition, light and tone and all the technical aspects of actually constructing an image that is visually pleasing. Then, somewhere into this mix I inject ‘spirituality’. That’s the tricky part.
AP: when you work on your larger works, do you have your studies lying around or you have the memory and work from that?
Usually, if I am certain I am going to paint a large or major painting, I want to make sure it’ll work, for a number of practical reasons. For instance, paint can be very expensive.
I can never be 100% sure because I need to leave the chance of finding something new. You kind of weigh it out, what are you prepared to risk or loose in order to gain this knowledge. I can never have an answer to that, and it’s beautiful that way.
AP: you work with oil?
Yes, at the moment, on all my large paintings.
AP: Do you layer or paint impasto?
It’s impasto, alla prima; a wet on wet process. It involves days and days of preparing the paint and the substrate; getting it right, from linen, preparing the grounds, and then mixing the actual colour itself. Spending a week mixing paint is quite a spiritual experience. And essentially, that is the body of the painting: The canvas is the skeleton, the wood and the canvas are like the bones. And the paint is the meat, the flesh and the blood, and that creates the soul of the work. It breathes life into it. When the two come together you are creating something quite human. It’s almost like a birth!! It is raw and feels like you are creating life. It is a beautiful experience. Even when it’s wrong, at least you tried.
AP: Do you use photographic material?
I used to, in the past, for a number of reasons. When I was studying light I did some images of landscapes to understand how light worked and I would paint from photos. But as I got older I realised that I was running the risk of my painting looking too stagnant and lacking the freshness of plein-air. So I started to rely upon my preliminary studies, despite the fact that they are not entirely accurate.
It’s important for me to look at the landscape itself. Often, if I can, I will paint large canvases outside – as large as practically possible. But you are up against the elements. You’ve got the sun, the wind, the rain, the dust, the insects, the pedestrians. All the elements are against you. It is exciting as well, because I am out there and experiencing the urgency to paint this mountain before the sun goes down. There is a rush of energy and excitement as well.
I remember standing on the edge of Katoomba painting a watercolour and it started to rain. I thought: “I’ve got two options: I run or I stay”. So I stayed. The rain fell onto the watercolour and actually created an artwork of its own and it was quite beautiful. It was like God wanted to have a go as well.[smiling]
I think it is important to go into the landscape and reconnect as often as I can because there is an energy that heals. I always find myself more relaxed when I come back from five days of painting in the bush or the rainforest. It is very therapeutic to be surrounded by the wilderness and the silence.
There is a voice in that silence. Or maybe a spirit.
AP: are your paintings ‘internal landscapes’ or are they a representation of specific places?
They are of actual locations; however, it’s often recomposed, compositionally, to make sure that the whole thing works. It’s inevitable. It’s part of our right, as painter.
WHAT ARE YOUR INFLUENCES (other artists) and why?
I have a hero who I look up to. In my firstyear of art school I discovered a French painter, Eugene Delacroix and also Gericault. Delacroix… it’s relentlessness to find a way to describe mortality. It is his search to make us realise we are mortal that is torturous and painful, but it is beautiful at the same time. I just like the way he sees the world, the way that he is never completely satisfied with what he’s made. I feel the same, there is always something more. Not to gain, but to find and release.
AP: every time you’ve done a painting you have matured a bit more, you’ve experienced more, you are already one step ahead of the past painting.
This is true. So the urgency is there. Nature is not going to change compared with the way we change. Nature remains quite dormant in a human’s lifetime, but the urgency to express mortality is what touches me in Delacroix’s work.
When I was a student, I discovered his journal. It was a translated copy that he started at the age of 21. I believe one of the first lines of entry was “I will not lie to myself”. I knew from that paragraph, that I had the right book. I carried it around like a bible for about three years. I didn’t have any money as a student so I went to the library and photocopied every page. By the time I finished it was four time thicker than the original! It was like carrying a brick around! And over the three years bits had fallen off and it was coffee stained.
There is a beautiful quote from Delacroix: “the fashion of the moment is very tempting. Glory is earned hard. Let the young remember that”
WERE YOU ALWAYS A LANDSCAPE PAINTER OR HAS YOUR PRACTICE EVOLVED TO COME TO IT AS A CENTRAL ELEMENT?
AP: I have seen some paintings of yours that were cityscapes…
They were all plein-air paintings, mainly in and around the city and painted mostly at night.
I have spent the last ten years painting rural landscapes of the Australian bush and wilderness. I thought it would be a nice change to paint in the middle of King Cross, at 1 o’clock in the morning! Surrounded by prostitutes and drug addicts and drunks and mad people. It was quite surreal.I was trying to find poetry in that madness. I don’t know whether I succeeded. I suppose I did because the whole collection is now sold.
Prior to 10 years of early rural landscape painting I was classically trained to paint figures and portraits, pretty much in the traditional master’s style. At that point I was very interested in Carravagio and learned how to paint very classical paintings, whether portraits or nude or theme paintings that involve horses and things like that.
The were very dramatised compositions.
AP: I find it interesting that you actually left the figure and the human to finally express mortality through the landscape..
Absolutely, I have thought about that and I think if you paint figures to express mortality it’s too literal, too shallow.
Having said that, Delacroix’s ‘Death of Sardanapalus’ defies every word I just said, because it’s an amazing painting. Perhaps I’m not a figure painter as I am a landscape painter, despite my classical training.
I find that landscape being much older; it will reveal our short spans of life. Take something as simple as a rock. When you hold it in your hands, it’s just amazing to think it’s millions of years old and you are holding it in your hands.
AP: and you are passing…
…and when you’re gone it will still be there. It has existed through every civil and world war on the planet and it is just a rock. It’s sitting there next to a stream, minding its own business. If that doesn’t describe mortality, I don’t know what does.That’s why I have this fascination with landscape, because a simple tree can outlive the greatest man or woman on the planet.
But as I said, marrying spirituality into that is probably one of the greatest challenges. Not just for myself who paints the landscape but quite possibly for every painter who’s attempted to paint. Because I think it is the real quest.
AP: I remember the feeling at your last opening (at Stanley st Gallery, Nov 2013), with all that buzz in the middle of the gallery, people talking to each other, laughing, and then the painting, on each side of the gallery, like contemplating the crowd, peacefully, and oh so quiet. The contrast was stunning.
This memory, to me, represent so well what you just said: the aliveness and mortality of humans, the time, contrasting with the peace, the slow quietness of your landscapes, the Landscape.
Yes, that’s a nice contrast actually. The paintings are of quiet places in the Australian bush and they are shown in the middle of the city, within an active and commercial environment.
AP: yes that highlighted the extreme quietness of your paintings, and lack of time…
Quite a way from your King Cross urban night paintings!…. Although night should be a quiet time.
…well not in King Cross! [laughing] But it is a very different energy…
The frequency is highly tuned in some respect. It’s probably as peaceful as the bush but going back to the spiritual connection to the landscape: mountains don’t change in a person’s lifetime; it’s only the viewer’s understanding of oneself that allows him to see the mountain differently. So what I am trying to say is King’s Cross might come across as being noisy and active and busy, but I think that if you were subject to that environment constantly you would be so tuned to that, that those noises would disappear, you would become immune to it. Walking through it at 3am would be a peaceful time.
However, it is still expressing my concern of ‘how we can humanise’ the landscape.
AP: it is also how we become familiar with a place until we become part of it and relax to it to receive it…that changes our view
It is good to allow yourself to stay in an environment for a while.
When I was younger and painted my first landscapes on location, I found I was literally overwhelmed by the sheer size and beauty of it and how quickly it changed because of the light or the weather.
I remember standing at this amazing lookout and looking into Blackheath and into the valley. It was a very sunny day and suddenly, out of nowhere, within minutes I turn around and these grey clouds are coming.I am up high, looking at this valley, and this is a truly beautiful, magnificent valley. It really IS magnificent! You feel so tiny, standing there on a rock that’s millions of years old You feel like you shouldn’t even be here, because it’s just so magnificent and you feel like you’ve cheated to be here because it is such a privilege.
In the space of minutes, a storm cloud rolled into the valley and there was a trail of mist, almost like a beast that had just swam through this beautiful place and suddenly it just poured down with rain. It lasted for about an hour. Then the sun was back.
AP: and that was three different landscapes
Three different landscapes. I thought to myself how I am going to paint this? How I am going to paint this….THIS? [large arms movements showing ahead]
I need time. I cannot do it I would need a lifetime. I realised I had better get started.
That’s really when my love for the landscape became real. I realised, as I said earlier, I could spend three lifetimes.
COULD YOU TAKE ME BACK TO YOUR EARLY YEARS AND WHAT INFLUENCED YOU TO BECOME AN ARTIST (childhood, development to being an artist)?
Where were you born, Town or country?
I was born in Cambodia and I grew up in the country. It was a very beautiful time for me.
DO YOU THINK THERE ARE SOME CHILDHOOD ROOTS TO YOUR LOVE OF LANDSCAPE? As child, being happy in the landscape, could this have nurtured a sense of connection with the landscape?
That’s a very good question.
I think my realisation that I wanted to paint landscape came when I was older for a number of reasons: I had a very difficult childhood due to the political unrest in Cambodia. I didn’t have the privilege of time to paint.Running for my life, finding food, water and shelter were a priority.
But it’s a good question, because I think that my deep sense of loss for my country and also for my family, has led me here. I want to protect it more than ever. Not for myself, just in general, so that other people can have a chance to look at what we’ve got.
I remember when I went back to my old school it had been removed. When I was at school there was a beautiful, beautiful lake behind it that had wild life in it. It had lilies and I would walk down there and have lunch. It was amazing. In less than two decades it has been destroyed and turned into houses and flats. So there is a threat to the immediate Australian landscape, no matter how well protected it is it often changes.
Painting them [the landscapes] maybe allows future generations to look and see that this is where they are from. There is a bit of nostalgia attached here, you could say.
Also, not having my own home as such, makes me feel the urgency to create one in my own practice. My own sanctuary. I often feel threatened by the external landscape and I’ve never completely felt safe in it. Painting my own, I feel more confortable. I know there are no monsters in it, no surprises and I am happy when other people look in it and see the same thing.
FIGURE OR NO FIGURE IN THE LANDSCAPE?
I find the figure in the landscape a bit too complete. To me when I look at other painter’s painting of the landscape, I feel I can go there. There are no limitations to exploring that picture. I think if you put a figure in there it’s almost too picturesque. You take away the mystic of the space. In a way you feel like there is a human violation.
As human beings, we love to explore. It is part of human curiosity. We want to be the first one to discover the Grand Canyon or mount this, or mount that, or this sea. It’s a natural curiosity to want to feel you are the first person to discover these great places.
I choose not to place figures in the landscape because I want to activate the same curiosity in the viewer, to tempt them, entice them and challenge them to explore.
AP: having said that, in some of your paintings I saw in Stanley st Gallery, there was a bit of a light, as if there was a car in the distance.
A light representing a vehicle is more subtle… [than a figure]…
In later work I’ve started introducing light into the painting simply because I wanted to create new surfaces and dynamics, and put a slight disturbance into a quiet space. It is experimental. I’m not absolutely sure that I will continue using these lights. I have to find out. The only way I can do this is to continue.
DO YOU HAVE A SPECIAL CONNECTION TO THE AUSTRALIAN LANDSCAPE, OR COULD YOU BE USE ANY LANDSCAPE FOR INSPIRATION?
I do! I love the Australian landscape because I can relate to its isolation, its sadness.
There is a beauty but also an immense sadness in the Australian landscape. There is a deep sense of yearning. It feels old and wise and very gentle and very strong, very rough and torturous, but very empathetic. It’s quite frightening, but enticing.
I remember camping in the deser and lying on the desert floor. I was literally just lying down with a bag and I looked straight up at the sky and all the stars. I thought ‘how beautiful’. …but then a thought occurred to me. I am a hundreds and hundreds of kilometres from the nearest person. …. [laughs] I am lying down in the desert and the nearest person is probably 200, 300km away from me. If something happened to me they wouldn’t know I’m here!
There was another occasion up in the mountains after I’d been bushwalking for half a day. I got down to a section where there was quite a beautiful waterfall. I sat near the waterfall and it was deafening. I realised that, in the middle of the bush, miles and miles away from the nearest city, was this voice. It was like the landscape had a voice – the waterfall was talking. It was deafening but after a while it became like music. It was as if it was singing to me and the water was the voice of the land.
It was a very strange but beautiful song.
You could hear the interruption and the fusion of the wild life. It was like trebles on musical scales, and there was that roaring water, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It was an amazing fusion of sounds.
So yes, I love the Australian landscape. I’ve always loved the Australian landscape. I just wish than when I was a boy I had had the ability to capture it.
AP: you most probably did, even if you didn’t express it at the time.
….It is a beautiful country.
HAVE YOU TRAVELED & USED OVERSEAS LANDSCAPE AS A SOURCE OF INSPIRATION?
How did this influence the work?
I have, but I find that the energy is different because I don’t find the same degree of isolation. Australia is quite unique because if you are in the city you don’t realise how big this country is. I find the concept of distance very interesting, particularly in Australia, because of the vastness of it.
You can drive in a car for six or seven hours and there is no-one on the road. It’s almost like your mind, your subconscious comes in and you start questioning mortality: “Where am I? Where am I going?? I’ve been driving for six hours and there is no-one around, there is nothing in here; there is nothing, so where am I actually going?? “
It is unusual. You start experiencing thoughts that you wouldn’t normally have. All of the sudden you feel that you are the only one here, almost the only one on the planet.
AP: This would be less likely to happen in other countries, that are much more populated.
In terms of the landscape I don’t relate to other parts of the world as much as I do here where I feel more connected. It challenges my spirituality as to my existence, and my relevance and projection as a painter.
It is a very powerful to feel this way. To be completely honest I am not entirely sure what the answer is. Perhaps another thousand paintings might help, I don’t know.
Australia feels extremely old and wise. Not the city, but when you go to rural areas they feel very sad yet very beautiful.
When I had just left art school I bought an old car and drove down to South Australia. That is when I realised for the first time how
large this country actually is:I was on a working holiday, working on farms. I remember working on a property harvesting grapes. I was living in an old school bus in the middle of a paddock and the bus had been converted into at home with and external shower and bed.
I remember one night it started raining, a very, very heavy rain. The bus had a tin roof and made so much noise I literally did go deaf!
I walked out of the bus to escape the noise and I stood there in the rain just getting wet and I realised how beautiful it was. I felt like I was in another world. There were miles and miles and rows and rows of grape vines. They stretched as far as you can see. I was standing in the middle of it with the rain falling down as if it was never going to end and I felt so rejuvenated.
At that moment I felt so alive. It was an amazing and beautiful experience.
AP: People seem to grow more and more disconnected from the land, being in cities and experiencing the landscape through their screen. If they had more of that kind of experience, maybe they would feel more inclined to… or feel the urgency to protect it.
Oh, definitely. I think that’s why people are getting attracted again to the concept of camping, to go a bit closer to nature, and reflect…
AP: I forgot to ask you that question a bit earlier in our conversation….Do you still draw?
I do, I love drawing. I like working with charcoal because it is immediate. The immediacy of charcoal is what makes the drawing alive. It is refreshing.
AP: You haven’t shown your drawings for a while?
I haven’t shown my drawing in large volumes recently. I incorporated half a dozen drawings in a show recently, along with my oils. It wasn’t a large collection like I have shown in the past when I would present a hundred drawings at an opening. I am planning on doing more work on paper in the future.
AP: Do you think that drawing on paper allows you to express different things or is it another way to express the same concern?
I think that working with drawing is more challenging when talking about spirituality because I am limited to black, white and the tones between. In term of the audience, colour excites. When you remove colour it becomes more challenging to express that spirituality. But if a drawing is successful I find that it can be more powerful, as strong or even stronger than a painting.
It [a painting] is more extensive. As a work it requires more time, more consideration and that allows me to filter out my thoughts. From the viewer’s perspective the audience wants to be entertained by the colour.
AP: But…what about YOU? Do you think that not having to worry about colour would give you a different kind of freedom?
No, not necessarily. In fact it doesn’t do that at all because my quest is the same. It doesn’t deviate from my quest. For example, if I sense something in a landscape, I can feel it’s energy. Whether you give me paint, black and white, a camera or anything, it doesn’t change because until I can capture that [feeling] nothing changes.
That’s really where a torturous notion kicks in. You know it’s there [in the landscape] but it’s not here [pointing at a canvas] so you can’t leave until you have it…..because it’s RIGHT THERE!
As a painter you want to be able to communicate this and I feel a responsibility to do this successfully. Otherwise I can’t sign it.
So no… it doesn’t change. The medium doesn’t alter my concern for what I am in pursuit of capturing. It doesn’t necessarily make it any easier. But with colour, in my experience, I have found it easier to ‘entertain’ audiences.
IN CONCLUSION WHY THE LANDSCAPE?
….To find myself.
….I think I’m looking for myself.
And I’m looking forward to meeting myself… [laughing]
Sokquon was born in Kampot, Cambodia and moved to Australia as a child. His work has featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions and he won his first award early in his career. Most recently he was a finalist in the prestigious 2013 Art Gallery of NSW Wynne Award. Sokquon currently resides and works in Sydney, within reach of areas such as the Blue Mountains and the Southern Highlands that are the source of his passion for the Australian landscape.
To view current works for Sokquon’s Winter 2014 Show go to http://www.sokquon.squarespace.com
or for more information contact Anna Ravenscroft – Works Liaison Manager +61(0) 404 615 948
or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
ll photographs by Emma Leslie