Vietnam Art – The Complex Minimalism Of Le Thiet Cuong

Catholic Church in Hanoi, oil on canvas, W 72cm x H 48cm

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Seeing paintings by Le Thiet Cuong at “Like a Nil” exhibition, many may think that it is very easy to copy his paintings, but that’s just a joke, the way to Le Thiet Cuong’s irreducibility is anything but simple.

In art, people often love complicated techniques and many lose themselves in that maze of complication their whole life. Only some can escape from the maze to define their own language of creativeness and most of them choose simplicity.

This simplicity may be seen as “bounds” in creativeness. It makes an easy way for the public to have access to artworks and the artists have to work hard to make that simplicity or “like a nil” to stir up obsessions or deep feelings in viewers.

Le Thiet Cuong’s paintings are deep of feeling and they don’t repeat themselves. “Lan’s Story” is not new in the arrangement because its motif is about the fate of women in the war but it is new for the feeling it brings to viewers.

Asking Le Thiet Cuong why he didn’t draw a story about someone else, for example a mother or a soldier, he said he drew “Lan’s Story” from his own experience. He has travelled to many areas to understand hidden corners behind the war and stories about women’s fates are the greatest obsession.

That was the reason for Le Thiet Cuong to display “Lan’s Story”, not “Hung’s Story”, a story about a soldier. He said “Hung’s Story” needs a larger space than “Lan’s Story” and he will bring “Hung’s Story” to an exhibition in the near future.

The painter said many people are very interested in “Lan’s Story” but nobody wants to buy these paintings. But he said he didn’t care about the sales of these paintings.

“Exhibitions are for my career, not for business. I’m very happy that many young people have visited my exhibition. I want these people to see my artworks because Vietnamese painting arts lack audiences,” Le Thiet Cuong said.

That’s a sad truth as schools don’t teach children how to appreciate art. That’s why Vietnamese people often neglect museums or traditional arts like ca tru (ceremonial songs), hat xam (blind musician’s songs) or don ca tai tu, etc.

“When I led my friends to the History Museum, I saw Vietnamese people went there to take photos, not to look at huge numbers of valuable objects. Paying VND70,000, museum staffs will open glass boxes for you to take photos of objects of thousands of years old. I felt terrible when I saw people carve their names on Champa towers in Nha Trang though these towers are built of terra-cotta. Invaluable vestiges are treated like toys because people don’t understand their value,” the painter said.

For this reason, Vietnamese paintings are not paid attention to by Vietnamese people. Painters like Le Thiet Cuong exist by selling paintings to foreigners. Some of his paintings are now hung up at a big museum in Singapore.

A painting by Le Thiet Cuong, which was displayed at “Like a Nil” exhibition.
“Are your paintings selling well?” Le Thiet Cuong said: “They sold well in the past, not now. I’m living on the past.”

“Are they expensive?” “Very expensive, because each painting is unique, and records the only moment of feeling in my heart,” the painter added.

“But you have your own gallery, why can’t you sell your paintings?” Cuong said his gallery is not for profit since he chooses and display artworks by young painters to help them take the first step in their careers.

“I’ve drawn paintings that I like, with my own style. I want to reach other fields like pottery, sculpting”

Le Thiet Cuong has a project that he plans to finalise in ten years: making a dictionary about Vietnamese craft villages. Three years have passed and he has finished researching art-related craft villages.

Deeply researching craft villages of Vietnam, he realised that hand-made products not only show the talents of Vietnamese craftsmen but also the cream of a society. Woodworks are currently made by machines but hand-made products are the most expensive because they are created by exquisite talents.

Pointing at a tea pot, Le Thiet Cuong said all of the patterns on the pot were drawn by hand, not by soulless machines. But Bat Trang pottery village now has only two craftsmen who can make patterns by hand in the traditional method.

Le Thiet Cuong can talk for hours and hours about such old things. “My friends say I love playing with old things but I understand their values and I love such values,” he said.

His house is an old one, which has been existing for many years, with bamboo-made handrails; most of the furniture is hand-made. All of it is very nice.

He loves rural cuisines. He can stay in his room the whole day to make small things or look at some old photos in his huge collection of photos. It seems that he is very satisfied with his current life and what he is doing.

Talents often have unhappy lives. For me, Le Thiet Cuong is a talent but he loses nothing. His children are very intelligent and his wife is very pretty.

“I have my own sadness. I haven’t had a meal with my whole family for tens of years. I love my mother most but she is now in a harsh situation, where money can’t help. I love her but I’m helpless!” he said.

“Is family the most important thing for a man like you, who is said to be gentlemanlike?” “I consider family as something that I must do. I have to do that job well so I can be assured to do other things,” Cuong said.

We drank tea on a late afternoon in April. Cuong’s family grilled meat for dinner, and the aroma was sublime. Le Thiet Cuong said he feels comfortable on such afternoons.

His gallery at 39A Ly Quoc Su often closes early. And at that time it is Cuong’s house, his happiness and sadness, like a short story he wrote a long time ago “The House on an Old Street”. That house is older than him and it keeps his life.

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