Vietnam Forever in the Mind and Soul

Le Thanh Son The Huc Bridge 2008 Courtesy of AiBo Fine Asian Art

By Jaime Morris-Pisani

April 15, 2011

Glenn Aber, collector and dealer of Vietnamese art, has a story for every piece in his collection. “Each piece has meaning to me,” he shares during a tour in his Westchester, New York, home-cum-gallery. “I bought them and I can picture the circumstances, I can picture the artist,” he says, his native Long Island dialect just barely detectable.

Moving with alacrity from one work to the next, Mr. Aber shares the details of the friendships he has fostered with many of the artists, factual and observational information about the Vietnamese people and their society, and his hopes for the Vietnamese art culture he cares for so deeply.

It is difficult to believe that just six years ago, Glenn Aber wasn’t the kind of man one might consider an art enthusiast. “I never took that much interest in art,” he recalls. That is until he found himself reading an article featured on the front page of the New York Times’ Arts and Leisure section, which discussed a new movement of art coming out of Vietnam. Suddenly, he was intrigued. “I probably wouldn’t have read it if they said it [the art] was from Italy, but it happened to be Vietnam and the next thing you know, I’m looking on the Internet, searching the artists, looking at the galleries and the art. That summer my wife and I took a vacation to Hanoi. I went out with an art agent and in the first day,  bought 15 pieces.”

For the average reader, this article might have provided interesting fodder for cocktail parties or perhaps the catalyst for a pleasure trip, but for Mr. Aber the connection was much more personal. His frame of reference for Vietnam related back to his college days during the late 1960s, when he, like many of his generation, rallied on university campuses across the United States, rebelling against the Vietnam War. The University of Cincinnati, Mr. Aber’s alma mater, was no exception.

“I was sitting in an English class,” he recalls, “when a student came in and announced to the class that we had just started bombing Cambodia. A kid sitting in the front picked up his desk and threw it right out the window – and then everybody just charged out of the class.” Subsequently, after learning of the Kent State Massacre on May 4, 1970, when Ohio National Guardsmen gunned down several college kids, Mr. Aber marched with 3,000 of his fellow students. “We marched downtown and sat in the busiest intersection of the city of Cincinnati – completely immobilizing all traffic. The police came in with loud speakers, ‘you have to get up or else you will be arrested,’ they warned protesters. Mr. Aber recalls standing up for fear of being arrested, but as he started to move he saw a police office clubbing a girl over the back and as feelings of anger ran through him, he walked over and pushed the officer. “That was a mistake,” he says laughing.

Mr. Aber spent the night with 200 other college kids, in a jail cell. “So here we are in the jail cells singing, we shall overcome,” Mr. Aber sings proudly. “It was pretty powerful. It was quite an amazing experience.” The next day, he (and all 200 students) went before a judge, pleaded guilty, paid a fine and were released.

“There were other things going on – marches on Washington – and I was a part of that, running around with my ponytail,” Mr. Aber continues laughing. “If you believe in something and you feel strongly about it, you shouldn’t be passive,” he says on a more serious note, reminding us all of the profound severity of the situation.

The 2005 New York Times article may have struck a chord with Mr. Aber’s young adult memories and provided the influence for his first journey to Vietnam, but the art itself and the lovely people of Vietnam inspire him and keep him going back time and time again.

Having now traveled extensively thoughout Vietnam, Mr. Aber appreciates the culturally strong emotional spirit of the Vietnamese people,  the reverence for their heritage and ancestry as well as their overall way of life. Having built many close relationships, he finds many artists prefer to start doing business with a tea service. During this time, both he and the artist are able to learn about each other; learning what kind of people they are. “I have really fostered some nice friendships with many of the artists. The Vietnamese people are very nice, very friendly, kind and  considerate. They are excited about the present and the future, which is a great quality.”

The art is very much reflective of this in terms of spirituality and emotional expression. The history of Vietnam is often very apparent in the art; under Chinese control for 2,000 years and French for 100 years, Vietnamese art is a unique combination of Eastern and Western influences. Mr. Aber believes art produced specifically in the northern part of Vietnam, Hanoi in particular, displays a more meaningful, less commercial appeal.

As one of only three serious collectors of Vietnamese art in the United States, Mr. Aber exudes a contained and dignified exhilaration when discussing his expansive collection; he estimates currently having approximately 150 pieces.

“You can go ahead and touch it,” he encourages while marveling over the Nguyen Xuan Tien piece, Traditional Sound, as the tour of his collection continues. “The oils in your skin are good for the lacquer,” he instructs as several individual fingers eagerly graze over the surface. The process employed to create this particular work and several others in his collection, is a lengthy, complex procedure pioneered by Vietnamese artists. Using natural substances of wood and sap, the process is especially time-consuming at a minimum of 75 days and produces a result that could easily be mistaken for a slab of granite.

The flood of natural light beaming in from tremendous windows around the gallery reflects the eggshell effect of the lacquer on wood pieces.  The shadows and light cast by the sun makes it nearly impossible to see the full detail of the art without mimicking the movement of the instrument-playing figure in the piece, the viewer must sway from side to side to gain full perspective.

Similarly, Lady in Red by Dinh Quan, another lacquer on wood piece, somehow encourages the viewer to follow the movement of the beautiful lady enrobed in red – an artistic representation of Miss Vietnam, the artist’s muse, and the woman he left his wife for. Again, every piece has a story.

Directly across the room from Traditional Sound, is the Nguyen Quang Huy piece, Indochine Girls, which is so precise in its details that from a distance it appears to be a vintage, black-and-white photograph. The girls’ facial expressions, along with the muted grey tones express a feeling of melancholia. “Vietnamese women are identified by their headwear,” Mr. Aber points out, referring to the traditional peasant headwear of the girls featured in the painting. The same assessment might be made for Old Women Living Near Sea by Vu Nhu Hai, which features a woman much older than those in Indochine Girls, but with the same vintage photo quality – this time in muted sepia tones – wearing a traditional hat. In this oil on canvas painting, the old, weathered woman wears a cross around her neck. In the mostly Buddhist nation, “there is approximately 20 percent of the population practicing Christianity,” says Aber.

Although Vietnamese art is young and perhaps not as well-known as other nation’s art movements, its popularity and accessibility are gaining strength every day.  Such notable names as Bill Gates, Bill Clinton and Prince Andrew all own pieces by Le Thanh Son. In Mr. Aber’s collection, two oil on canvas, impressionism style paintings by Le Thanh Son may appeal to a viewer with a more European style affinity. The artist, with a background in cinematography, creates an emotional, three dimensional experience with brightly colored, thick impasto.

Mr. Aber’s collection exhibits the true versatility of Vietnamese artists. Although each artist has a unique vision, means of expression, or medium, it is impossible to overlook the influence of such movements as realism, abstract expressionism, post impressionism and impressionism.  Mr. Aber isn’t as interested in labels per se. He has learned to trust his instincts, collecting and dealing what he loves and appreciates. “When I first started collecting, I wasn’t very secure in my ability to buy. Having been in the textile business for many years, a lot of what I did was picking out colors and patterns – so there was a connection. Six years later, I can trust my judgment a lot more. Not that I’m an authority by any means, but I can sense when there is talent, when there is ability, when something is exceptional.”

Throughout the tour of his collection and the interview, Mr. Aber expresses a very professional demeanor and yet with a little time, a casual and witty personality emerges. “What started as a hobby, turned into a passion and then it was as if I was acting out in a drunken stupor,” he laughs when speaking about the development of his collecting and dealing. It is also very apparent from the way Mr. Aber discusses his friendship with the various artists and the Vietnamese people as a whole, he is a caring, sensitive and emotional person.

These personality traits are especially evident when he speaks about his charity and philanthropic work as a board member of United Hebrew in New Rochelle, New York; philanthropist to East Meets West Foundation (creating projects in Vietnam to provide clean water, hospital and education); and Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital at Westchester Medical Center. Closest to his heart though, is Casa de Pan, created and run by a Costa Rican couple as a refuge for abandoned and abused children in Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

Mr. Aber became involved with Casa de Pan, or House of Bread, after his son, engaged in community service there, sent an emotional photograph of one particular little girl to his father. Immediately, Mr. Aber felt compelled to help. “It struck a chord in me like nothing else has,” he says. Four year old Anita, abused by her mother’s boyfriend to the point of developing cerebral palsy, had speech and motor skill deficits, and was completely unable to walk.  Arrangements were made for Anita to have surgery at Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital, and Anita lived in the Aber’s home for four months afterwards, receiving physical, occupational and speech therapies as well as eyeglasses.  Although the surgeon said Anita wouldn’t be out of a wheelchair for  months, after only four days, she was up and chasing the Aber’s dog, Max.  Mr. Aber credits her amazing spirit, determination and will for such a rapid recovery. “I don’t know that I’ve seen that in anyone else I’ve ever met,” he says of the little girl as tears appear in his eyes.  Mr. Aber then relates the story of his visit last summer to Casa de Pan with his wife Fran, bearing gifts, toys, toiletries and clothes for the children, along with pizza and ice cream. “They have nothing. There are no governmental agencies that help them. It’s all local charities…they were so happy,” he recalls.  It was as rewarding as anything I’ve ever done. It’s overwhelming. It’s an awakening.”

Now he is off to Vietnam again, to purchase more art and catch up with the artists. “I like being with the artists. I hope to maintain the relationships I have with them. I’ll buy more art and hopefully give them the recognition they deserve.”

Mr. Aber says he doesn’t take anything for granted and is appreciative of everything he has. A portion of all AiBo Fine Asian Art sales are donated to Casa de Pan and his other charities of choice. “I like to share,” he says with a humble shrug. “I am who I am.”

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