By Nora Taylor
Being at once Vietnam’s best known art critic and one of the country’s leading painters is no easy matter for forty-six-year-old Nguyen Quan. He is often torn between his own intense desire to paint and the critical eye that he exercises on other people’s work. But, he does manage somehow to separate his painting from his writing and in chameleon-like fashion switches from analyzing the country’s artistic developments since 1925 to finding his own true voice in his art. His success is perhaps due to the fact that he can be two different people at once.
While his writing provides him with an open forum for expressing his ideas about the nature of Vietnamese art and enables him to exercise his authority on intellectual matters and sharpen his analytical skills, his painting reveals his inner soul, the complexities of his feelings and immediate desires. Luckily for him, his critical skills have not inhibited his painterly impulses. He has maintained his natural ability to be spontaneous and free in his painting. Although he has spent much of his life promoting the integration of Western artistic concepts into Vietnamese painting, his own work is intensely personal and delves deeper into his obviously problematic relationship between Western-style modernism and Vietnamese spirituality.
His latest works especially reflect this dynamic opposition of style and content. In the series of works he titles “Altars,” headless women with stone-like flesh stand like sculptures in front of platforms laden with fruit and flowers. Women act as altar stands rather than as offerings in themselves. Many Vietnamese painters have taken the habit of adorning their paintings with images of nudes as if to counteract the years when female nudity was prohibited from being displayed in public spaces, but the nude women in Quan’s painting are not there for display, revelation or worship. They are props for his dialogue with himself and his longing for peace and harmony. In Quan’s world, nature and culture, the material and the human become both enmeshed and opposed to one another. Rock and flesh, representations of the figurative and abstract, yin and yang merge into and against one another. In his newer “Gift to Asia” series, he seems to have freed himself from having to use the human figure at all as a backdrop to his compositions of the objects that make up the Vietnamese spiritual landscape. Instead, these forces stand on their own as if he contained them in a miniature daoist garden. Puddles of water, porous rocks, thorny plants and round, colorful fruit interact with one another linked with the scratch of an imaginary wire like a mobile hanging in the air.
Quan is one of the few painters in Vietnam today who has truly come into his own. His work no longer speaks of “Vietnameseness” or “tradition.” He has so matured and evolved in the process of consistently putting Vietnamese painting on the international art map that he has freed himself from the reins of the collective consciousness of being a painter in Vietnam and risen to the level of a universal painter who has come to terms with what it means to be himself.
Published on 8/1/95