Samraing Chea’s Mystery of Subject and Power of Enigma

4 x 4 drew to a close this past Sunday, concluding the solos of four of APA’s prolific studio artists. To round out the story of the show, APA spoke with both studio manager James McDonald and Samraing Chea about the undercurrents of Chea’s practice. Although presenting the most figurative work in the show, against the abstracts of Monica Lazzari and Rebecca Scibilia, as well as James MacSporran’s graffiti style, Chea’s work is perhaps the most elusive of the group.




The practice of Samraing Chea (b 1995, Cambodia), an emerging artist working with greylead and colour pencil on paper,  contains humorous and startling social commentary and an uncanny ability to extract the irony and idiosyncrasies of his subject. He held his first solo at Reading Room in 2018 and has shown in various group exhibitions including Outsider Art Fair, New York; Spring 1883, Sydney and Melbourne; and Melbourne Art Fair. His work is held in private collections worldwide.

“I have been coming to Arts Project for a long time,” comments Chea, “I like the people there. I am feeling really good, and I like it when I sell my work to people.” Chea joined the Arts Project Studio in 2011, and over the last decade has developed a recognisable oeuvre.

Chea’s artistic growth has been observed by studio manager James McDonald, who comments, “While his choice of material has, for the most part, remained unchanged, his subject matter has become more eclectic over the years, and the density of his imagery has also increased, requiring from the viewer, an almost forensic, ‘nose to the page’ approach to looking at the work, so as not to miss the intricate details held within the small scale image plane.” 

Looking at Chea’s work, you sense the pressure of the pencil, and his time spent in physical proximity to the image created with dense and angular compositions of a usually small scale. He often incorporates not only the visual repetition of forms but the repetition of the subject itself, as well as thoughtful text reflecting back to the image. But the meticulous nature isn’t bound by excessive time spent on one image, with Chea saying, “It can take two to three weeks, or two to three days, it just depends.”

McDonald also notices the detail taken to making his work and maintains, “Aside from its visual appeal, the glorious complementary colour palette and beautifully executed drawing, the ambiguity of much of the visual information he employs can generate robust discussion amongst viewers around meaning and intent. This quality of the work is what provides sustained interest.”

Not only duteously created, Chea’s work has incredible narrative focus. “I like my work to have a fantasy look to it, and to be very specific.” Themes abound, taken from comics, cartoons and anima, or movies and TV. This includes recent work reflecting on 1980s films Moonstruck and Diner or recent drawing a ‘big bird’ statue from an episode of Shawn the Sheep. Chea’s work often celebrates the industrial age and the concept of working for a living. The artist almost imbues a hero status to ‘big rigs’, skyscrapers and steam trains. His ‘inventory’ pictures remind McDonald of the American artist, George Widener, who, like Chea, collates and collects imagery in his work and also includes text for further explanation to the visual clues . But then, according to McDonald, some pictures also feel like pages ripped out of a graphic novel so loaded with detail that the audience feel like they’ve dropped in to an important exchange between two people involved in the minutiae of everyday life.

On Chea’s research process, James McDonald continues, “Chea is never without the laptop computer that is a key piece of equipment in his process. He spends time researching and collecting ideas from the internet, seeking out Anime, cartoons, films, YouTube clips that inspire him. He is also a gamer, and elements of this form of computer graphics, and the facility for absorption that is synonymous with this pastime, are strongly evident in Chea’s work.”

The connection between these images and stories might seem enigmatic to the viewer, at first. “Chea’s work has the uncanny ability to turn us all into clue collectors and riddle solvers,” comments McDonald, “I think for the most part though what you see is what you get. We are looking at work made by a young artist who is observing, participating and articulating what he finds most intriguing and stimulating about the world.” But Chea offers a through-line, however vague, “I like to draw elements and forces in my pictures, that’s what my work is about.”

Mysterious but forthright, Chea provides powerful hooks that draw the eye without ever giving too much away.

Love from the Studio is a series of interviews and articles bringing you behind the scenes of Arts Project Australia. Studio manager James McDonald was interviewed by Arts Project Australia’s communications co-ordinator Tahney Fosdike, and Samraing Chea by James McDonald.