Layers of Meaning

From Asian Art News 2005
By Bradford Edwards

Nguyen Quang Huy in an opening ceremony

Last year, the 22-year-old Singaporean actor and director who had a great passion for Xuan Phai’s paintings wanted to bring the artistic life of painter Xuan Phai on stage. So Benny Lim met the late painter’s son Bui Thanh Phuong to ask for permission to stage a monologue play about his father.

The play in which Benny Lim acted as Bui Xuan Phai and together with four supporting artists featured extracts of cheo (popular opera), the art that Bui Xuan Phai loved and created paintings about. It is a pity that Xuan Phai’s paintings could not be introduced in the play because of the copyright problem. Instead of that, before watching the play at the Singaporean Art Museum, audience can have a look at diary of painter Phai which has been kept by his family for 30 years. The play features the painter’s creativity during the three historical periods of Vietnam: the French colonialist period, the anti-French war and anti-US war period and years after the wars.

Benny Lim is an amateur painter. He painted many landscape paintings influenced by Phai’s street paintings.

Since the mid-1990s, Vietnamese artist have become much less tentative about experimenting so that the media in which artists work have broadened considerably. No longer is a painter simply a painter but may also be a sculptor or an installation artist. This is true in the case of Nguyen Quang Huy-one of the most promising artists of his generation-whose paintings, lacquerware, installation, and video work give him a multi-faceted career.

Every artist has their own pattern of development, their own story. Sometimes their entrance into the art community can be immediate and spectacular and sometimes it is initially more subtle, but eventually they exert a strong presence. While the early story of Vietnamese artist Nguyen Quang Huy could be considered fairly typical, his development into an unusual and visionary artist is not. After a relatively low-key emergence from art school, he is now one of the most vital and influential contemporary artist working today in Vietnam.

Born in 1972, in Ha Tay, a small city outside of Hanoi, Huy migrated to the capital at 18 to further his education. In 1996, he graduated from Hanoi Fine Arts University, which is widely acknowledged as the most influential art education institution in Vietnam. At the time, he was seen as one of the most promising artists of his generation and was loosely grouped with Nguyen Minh Thanh and Nguyen Van Cuong. Huy was then viewed as the more subdued and enigmatic of the three painters, who become close friends while at art school.

His early work was not as easily read as most of his contemporaries. Often working with a stylized outline of a seated Buddha-like figure he would also explore that theme with different, rounded biomor-phic shapes. The curvaceous forms would look like something that may be labeled organic or perhaps even otherworldly. Simplistic and flat they were essentially graphic in rendering, yet with the brushwork highlighted-warm and inviting, not distanced or formal.

Within these compositions Huy would weave or layer a personalized script. At first glace it resemble handwriting, but when further examined it seemed to make no sense; it resemble neither Vietnamese nor English nor any other language for that matter. Not only were the dominant shapes he used usually mystifying, but the “writing” was indecipherable as well. Here was the artist as cipher. What was he saying? What was he trying to say?

Doing most of his early work with gouache on do paper (thin, but strong hand-made rice paper) he kept the scale consistent (50 x70 cm). The range of colors was also restricted to earthy reds, gray blues, burn oranges, and flat blacks. This method encouraged a lot of experimentation and immediacy because the materials are inexpensive and plentiful.

Later he also made some beautiful crafted lacquerware pieces-the compositions translating well into this very time-intensive and laborious media (in many ways it requires the opposite sensibilities of gouache on do paper.) Lacquer is executed in many steps that can take several weeks of preparation before laying down the imagery. Unlike the more immediately gratifying (wet drawing) style of gouache, lacquer artwork has to be planned and coaxed toward completion.

By early 2002, Huy began painting a handful of oils on rough Russian burlap “head portrait.” Beginning without a central plan or cohesive concept he started painting formal full frontal portraits of women’s faces, from just below the neckline. Employing a simple and direct approach, he found that there was a potential larger series with this idea. Now he has completed nearly 100 portraits that are all the same size (100 cm square) and material.

The subjects of his portraits are not specific people, except for three deeply moving portraits of his grandmother, but instead range from idealized Vietnamese faces to the more prosaic. Huy has used many different painting techniques in portraying these head. His main method is to apply a photographic feel to the imagery, not photorealistic in realization, but rather through constructing a more ghostly image, or “remembered photo” of the subject.

His personal writing, which he insists follows no system or rules, can be seen in some of the portraits. The “text” can be seen in a swirling circular shape, applied in a background wallpaper manner or even written directly over the subject’s face. This can lend a mysterious and totemic quality to the images as if they have a secret ritualistic function to them.

Huy liberally borrows from the palette of art history and his references can sometimes be too obvious. It is not always clear if this is done overtly and playfully or is realized more unconsciously. One can see direct evidence of exposure to the work of such artists as Reneù Magritte,Giorgio de Chirico, and Gerhard Richter in some of the compositions. When these cues read too blatantly, it weakens the power of the painting.

There is a consistent economy of paint applied while the touch is light and masterful. A rough and warm texture dominates by using the burlap and he often leaves areas unpainted revealing the dirt colored nappy canvas. There is a wide swing from rather straight portraiture to sometimes obscuring the subject’s face altogether.

The portraits are often blurry or smudged and can appear out of focus. He is able to render not only a suggestion of photographic imagery but at times also implies a frozen frame of a recorded video image. Huy somehow achieves a believable depth to these portraits without utilizing the conventional rendering methods of the three-dimensional. Currently he is working on much larger canvases of this same head series (200 x 200 cm).

At a recent exhibition at the Goethe Institute, in Hanoi, he displayed a grid of 30 paintings on one wall, each portrait being one-meter square. In this manner the power and focus of this series can best be seen. Huy maintains the proportions and composition an the canvases consistent and they start to make more sense when viewed as a group. There is obviously a committed method at work, yet, at the same time, an equally evident desire to explore and to take risks. He seems to want to strike a balance between control and accident in his painting process by pushing the style of his imagery while remaining firmly within the same format.

It is not a surprise that Huy has usually been using performance, installation, and especially video as means of expression. In fact, his work in these areas has paralleled his portrait series and there has been an apparent blending between these disciplines. He insists that the painting and installation/video work naturally complement each other. There have been several workshop in recent years in Hanoi that have facilitated free experimentation in these art forms, up until recently unfamiliar to most Vietnamese artists. Huy, in particular, has enthusiastically responded to expressing himself through the new media. He says that it broadens his palette, that there are many ideas of his which are not very effectively translated into traditional painting.

A video installation, Re, Yellow, Green (2003) show at the Goethe Institute, in Hanoi, was a reflection of moments recalled from dreams o his youth and present day cultural life. Using a two-hour loop of video projection on tree separate layers of mosquito netting he relied on memories from his early childhood. One layer portrayed a dancing figure from a music box, twirling endlessly. Another layer held an image of a motionless man sleeping on his side while a third layer had a stream of current street-scene footage. Never betraying a direct meaning, the installation was meant to be suggestive of mixing memory with ongoing reality, which then, of course, become future memory.

Another installation incorporating video, memory of memory, was shown at Nha San, Hanoi’s first privately run alternative space. In three clear glass bowls, small television sets were placed ad filled with water ( much like a fish bowl). There was the implication of water “transferring” memory. One monitor showed Huy in front of the a Buddhist Pagoda praying to the viewer, another had a shot of a street scene in monitor, and the last one was a “taking head” of a schoolgirl. Related to the previous piece he further probed methods of displaying the inherently hazy and inexact experience of memory.

Huy’s most recent performance, Anvil, also took place at the Goethe Institute and was simple in execution and concept. Dressed casually in street clothes, Huy wrapped his entire body tightly with a common manila rope. Then using a metal kitchen knife he proceeded to attempt to cut and hack himself free by striking the rope on top of an iron anvil. The exercise was futile and impossible-that was the point. He was publicly acting out his own frustration with expressing himself-the difficulty of working, of making something good and worthwhile.

When quizzed about where his allegiances lie, Nguyen Quang Huy insists that he is primarily a painter. He explains that the performances and installation inform his art in general, but does not want to be restricted by any specific method of working. On the subject of the meaning behind his work, he is much less exact. This is probably best because the real value of his artwork rests with the viewer’s interpretation of his idiosyncratic but stimulating image making.

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