The problem with lacquer is the dismissive prejudices, the prejudices created by the factory-like production of the medium showing traditional themed images of Vietnam. To see how lacquer painting is evolving, you have to put this bias aside. Bear in mind that even the Le brothers, the Hue duo of rising art stars who recently participated in the Singapore Biennale, make brightly coloured lacquers that on first impressions look a lot like shop-ready commercial art. Yet the brothers simultaneously create stunning video work and metaphorically rich performance art, bringing their lacquer pieces into a new realm.
The State of the Art
In Vietnam in the mid to late-1990s, experimental artwork was uncommon. In this context, Phunam’s conventional lacquers are not to be dismissed. His are the oldest works in this exhibition. Works made a decade later are understandably richer in new techniques, but Phunam’s large depiction of a tribal musical performance should be admired for the complimentary colour contrast beating all over the picture. The faces, too, are unusual in their balaklava-like synthesis.
Tradition demands that a lacquer painting should be sanded and rubbed until all brushstrokes have been bulldozed into a perfectly flat image. Xuan Chieu is the artist in this show who best represents that practice. Inlays of eggshell and mother of pearl have been finely grinded. Patches of gold leaf gleam among the original powdered mineral colours that tradition calls for: three shades of red and ochre. Geometric forms in indigo blue and forest green are rarer in first-generation lacquer paintings, so enjoy their Sapa-like coolness.
The pastel colours in Duong Tuan Kiet’s paintings indicate that they contain little natural lacquer, a treacle too dark to permit sugar pinks and mint greens, when used as art schools teach. His pieces look like oil panting on canvas, whereas lacquer is always painted on smooth wooden surfaces. Kiet does cover the blank canvas in gold leaf before he paints, a technique used in lacquer to give glow to the painting. These canvases propose another innovation in lacquer’s evolution: its inclusion into the vast collection of ‘mixed media’ paintings.
Vo Xuan Huy is an art lecturer from Hue who tries to take lacquer painting to the third dimension. Thick impasto, deep cracks, puddles of honeyed glass and ripples formed by fast evaporation are the geography of his abstracts. Lotus flowers, Chi circles and other easy symbols stamped into the pigmented mud do seem to cheapen the visual experience from afar, but I have not come across another artist who is so keen to sabotage the polished surface of traditional lacquer.
Nguyen Xuan Anh moves from urban depictions to experimental abstracts. The latter are fascinating. The two large works in this showcase are vigourous expressionistic exercises, with texture reminiscent of Tapies and graphic power as strong as Franz Kline’s. Anh collages sack cloth and drips colour onto otherwise traditionally crafted lacquers abundant in polished eggshell.
While other lacquer artists elsewhere are creating new finishes by using spray paint and glass-like polyester resin, the art in this show is innovative within the limits of possibility of natural lacquer. — Cristina Nualart
Tu Do Gallery is at 53 Ho Tung Mau, Q1, Ho Chi Minh City