The Paintings of Sokquon Tran by Bruce Doar
The Paintings of Sokquon Tran
Strange to say, only with the flourish of romanticism in the nineteenth century did European art focus on the landscape as the theatre for the mind. The full-frontal landscape encapsulating the possibilities, desires, fancies, imaginings, and exhilaration of the modern world and its revolutions, as well as its dread, anxieties, fears, and menace testified to romanticism’s communion with nature in a post-deist world. This romantic force shattered and displaced the earlier backdrop landscapes that were ancillary tableaux and montages for the Renaissance and Enlightenment consciousness in which the triumphant human psyche aligned itself with the gods of Biblical, Greek and Latin proportion. (Ironically, Renaissance background “landscapes” were only anachronistically perfected by Salvador Dali’s tempera as a footnote in the twentieth century.
The full storm and stress of the romantic landscape were perfected in the German-speaking world where mythologies rivalling those of Christianity hinged upon elemental natural forces of wilderness, waters, mists, fogs and fire, and this powerful force from German painting fed into early oil landscape paintings in Australia where it was tempered by an acknowledgment of the powerful effects of the light of the Antipodes addressed by the Heidelberg artists. The oil paintings on Belgian cloth by Sokquon Tran (b. 1969 in Kampot, Cambodia) are the true quintessential heirs of these rival traditions of the psychological landscape and throughout his many preparatory studies in charcoal, crayon, watercolour, and oil on canvas he rallies the forces that he finally brings to his brooding landscapes. More recently he has incorporated timber, stone and elements of nature into his works, underscoring the links between his paintings and the land.
The menace and unease we sometimes feel gazing at his visions of rocky foreshores and mist-wreathed mountains viewed across brooding waters evoke human calamity, perhaps not surprising in an artist whose childhood was scarred by the horrors of war and human atrocities. The elemental and dark waters that lap around the consciousness expressed in his works tell of the journey he made to Australia as a young man with an artistic vision in which Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa stood as a stark symbol of what nature and man can be forced to endure.
Yet looming from the waters are the transcendent and redeeming landforms, a realm of ethereal mystery rather than a fatal shore. Sokquon Tran has drawn inspiration from the landscapes around the Southern and Central Highlands, and he is able to envisage them as the early convicts consigned to Australia saw them. These wildernesses are not far from Sydney, but he rarely addresses the vistas that city offers. His views of Chinatown and Balmain, for example, bring the blurred elemental forces of nature into the city. It is through this anti-colonizing power of his brush that Sokquon Tran infuses nature into Australia’s overweening and excessively twittering urban ethos. Sokquon’s work thus moves from menace to transcendence, and in this way he achieves the tranquillity which can coincidentally also be seen in classical Chinese painting. For a millennium previously, Chinese artists bypassed the human form, figure, and visage to express, encode, and enshrine human psychology and the individual in landscapes in which mountains and streams were obligatory symbolic elements. Despite his shared evocation of transcendence, I hasten to add that Sokquon Tran is a fully fledged, and uniquely Australian, artist yet his work can only be contemplated in the context of world art.
Bruce Doar, Historian and arts writer