Fusing old and new: Bui Huu Hung’s lacquer paintings

Recollection introduces the artist’s new works centred on the common theme of recollection /”> recollection and memory.

Lacquer painting is one of the most cherished features of Vietnam’s artistic and cultural heritage that has survived and sustained through conflict and political upheavals. Not surprisingly, lacquer painting gives contemporary and modern Vietnamese painting that distinct identity and is the medium of choice for several prominent artists of today.

Bui Huu Hung’s striking compositions, including some that feature the complex and difficult technique of applying lacquer materials onto canvas — rather than board or wood — reference the past as they reflect the present, with a nod to the narratives of ancient legends where mythical figures are depicted against a background of illusory spaces.

Bui Huu Hung was interviewed by Sajid Rizvi , editor of Eastern Art Report . Articles based on the interview will be published shortly.

Bui Huu Hungdoes not paint portraits of real people from the past, rather he invokes characters from an imagination inspired by Vietnam’s ancient myths and cultural folklore. The subjects in his paintings often are women whose faces depict melancholy or sorrow in what brings to mind silences of the meditative state. Many of the figures portrayed in his paintings are not central to the folkloric narratives but are often peripheral characters — the mother, sister, or a beloved of the hero. The additional representation of incense-burners, vessels and manuscripts in some of Hung’s paintings serve not as an attempt to identify a specific time or place, but instead to evoke a mystery that resists easy interpretation by the viewer. Alongside these references the artist also uses calligraphic elements of Chu-Nom, the ancient Vietnamese writing system derived from Chinese characters, through which he notes the characters, year and setting of the narrative being portrayed.

Vietnamese lacquer art is an ancient craft that combines the creative genius of the artist with the rigorous skills of a craftsman. In ancient societies, a resin extracted from lacquer trees was originally used for decorating the interiors of palaces, temples and pagodas. This time-honoured technique can take several months to complete, often a laborious process requiring much patience and technical skill, making it one of the most difficult media to work with.

Lacquer traditionally comes in three colours — brown, black and vermilion. By the 1930s , artists started to use a new technique known as chiselling which gives a richer mix of colours and an added sense of size and distance..

Most lacquer painting is done on wood, which sets contemporary artists such as Bui Huu Hung. It is covered with a piece of cloth glued to it using the sap of the lacquer tree and then coated with a layer of the sap mixed with earth. The board is then sand papered and recoated with a layer of hot sap. After polishing, this gives a smooth black surface with a brilliant lustre.

The painter uses hot lacquer to draw the outline of a picture and the colours are applied one by one, layer upon layer. Each coat dries slowly.

The finishing touches consist of polishing and washing the pictures. This process may seem like brutal treatment for a work of art, but it is done with great care. The process leaves a brilliant surface on a painting.

Through years of experience and experimentation, the artists use the addition of other substances such as plant material ash, crushed eggshells, gold and silver to embellish their works. These additional substances help the modern artists to express themselves fully and to further add creativity and individuality of style to their art works

Lacquer items have been found in ancient tombs in Vietnam dating as far back as the third and fourth centuries BCE. Over the centuries, Vietnamese master craftsmen and artists have mastered techniques using lacquer for the purpose of decoration and preservation. Lacquer paintings now can compete successfully with silk and oil painting and have the unique character of this style of painting.

Descended from a family of antiquity professionals, Hung creates his lacquer works both on the conventional wooden surface and canvas. The choice of the latter medium has allowed him to advance the traditional methods to a new stage. Controlling the technique, Hung allows his characters to delicately appear from beneath the layers of lacquer. Manipulating the lacquer by incorporating gold, eggshell or silver powder, Hungreferences and retains the essence and versatility of the medium.

After graduating from Hanoi’s Fine Arts University in 1975 , Hung studied painting in lacquer workshops and nowis director of the Nha San Studio Lacquer Artist ’s Workshop in Hanoi .Rather than applying Japanese lacquer, which dries faster and requires fewer layers, he travels 30 miles out of Hanoi to an area known for trees with the best lacquer resin yield. Into this traditional lacquer he mixes pigments to tint his palette in the ancient way, creating a more subtle, deeper lustre, allowing him to create his distinctive paintings.

Gallery director Dat Ngo points out that Vietnamese art reflects a mixture of influences: Vietnamese traditional art, influences from China and influence from the French during the colonial period. Just over a decade ago Vietnam opened up to the world. The international art market started to see the talents of Vietnamese artists and the variety of styles in Vietnamese paintings. Demand for Vietnamese art is increasing rapidly, especially in France and other countries in Europe, he adds.

Newly opened Apricot Gallery specialises in contemporary Vietnamese art and has already placed the work of many of the artists it represents in leading international corporate and private collections.

Apricot Gallery , 27 Albemarle Street , London W1S 4HZ . T +44(0)20 7491 8987.

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