Beauty–and Politics –in Eye of Beholder in ‘A Winding River’


When the smoke clears, the art remains.

“A Winding River: The Journey of Contemporary Art in Vietnam” is a meander through the last 70 years of Vietnamese art, and despite well-publicized protests by anti-Communist Vietnamese activists, the exhibit at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana is surprising for being both aesthetically accessible and politically benign.

The exhibit includes some 75 works from 53 artists in a range of media–from ink on paper or silk to woodblock prints to oil paintings. It’s easy to pick out the Asian elements–a tendency to render people and objects in a flat, unmodeled style–as well as to see, especially in the painting, the influence of 19th century French schools. There are portraits, narratives, landscapes and village-scapes, and even a few abstracts.

But let’s go straight to two of the controversial works:

* “Young Woman Forging Steel” is a rather pedestrian painting of a young woman in military uniform handling a pair of tongs amid a drab factory setting. It’s competently done but hardly exciting, and quite unlikely to change anyone’s politics.

* “Mother’s Heart” shows a mother praying at what is probably a family altar, with pictures of loved ones–soldiers, some wearing Communist caps, who may have passed away–on the wall. It portrays a universal theme, a mother’s grief and concern for sons, nephews and other relatives lost to war.

Indeed, soldiers from both sides died, fighting for what they believed in–or perhaps were forced to believe. Alternately, one can see the hero of this painting as the Madonna-like mother, who folds her hands in prayer and stares beatifically into the distance. Whether the boys are heroes or victims is for the beholder to decide.

Politics aside, this is one of the better works in the exhibition. Boldly composed, the figures and the objects on the altar table are outlined in a strong black and filled in with a moderation of color. The painting is affective without being drippingly sentimental, as some of the other works are.

If anything, the exhibition is to be faulted for some rather mediocre selections–made by a group of five artist-scholars under the sponsorship of the Washington-based Meridian International Center–as well as an overemphasis on the pastoral and the quaint.

The small paintings of villages by Bui Xuan Phai, for example, have the boring feel of an art student’s attempts, and a beginning student at that. Pham Viet Hong Lam’s “Two Red Buffalo” is simply kitsch, although it might have been interestingly placed next to another controversial painting, “Love,” whose two-headed red buffalo has been seen by protesters as a symbol of the Communist regime.

Some of the most interesting works transcend politics and place.

Nguyen Tan Cuong shows an intuitive touch for how paint can convey texture. Against flat grayish backgrounds, he paints his subjects in thick impasto–a fish on an unfolded piece of paper in “Fish” and tea cups and a teapot in “Still Life With Tea Cups.”

Tran Van Thao’s abstract “Night and Day” shows 10 grids around a red center, all encrypted with signs and symbols of some secret math formula.

Here our duty is not to decipher hidden messages but simply to contemplate, even to enjoy. And sometimes art is no more, nor less, than just that.

Scarlet Cheng writes frequently about the arts for The Times. She formerly was managing editor of the magazine Asian Art News in Hong Kong.

* “A Winding River: The Journey of Contemporary Art in Vietnam” opened Saturday at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, 2002 North Main Street, Santa Ana. $4-$8. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, through Oct. 3. (714) 567-3600.

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