By Ian Findlay
Asian Art News Jan/Feb 2004
Since the late 1980s, lacquer painting has become one of the most successful genres within contemporary Vietnamese art. The success and the quality of many lacquer works has led numerous overseas private and public collections to acquire significant modern and contemporary pieces since then. Historically, lacquer was once considered only an incidental craft medium. But with important modern master such as Nguyen Gia Tri, Tran Van Can, To Ngoc Van and Nguyen Tu Nghiem making lacquer works, the medium has become regarded as an important one for future generations of artists. Lacquer has provided the artists who began to come of age in the 1990s with a new set of aesthetic and pictorial challenges. Of this generation such artists as Thanh Chuong, Bui Huu Hung, Vu Thang and Nguyen Minh Quang have made the wide range of absorbing artworks covering a diverse range of landscape, figuration and abstraction.
While oil painting remains the most popular form of contemporary Vietnamese art among the vast majority of collectors, lacquer painting has certainly established itself as one of the most innovative and one which represents a significant national heritage.
This wide-ranging exhibition of 70 works by 31 young and mid-career artists, most of whom were born in Hanoi, ex-emplifies this and showed just a little of the depth of contemporary lacquer art in the city, even though there were a number of significant artists missing from the selection.Some of the prominent artists in this show were Cong Quoc Ha, Nguyen Minh Quang, Nguyen Kim Thanh, Bui Quang Thang, La Van Suu, Le Tri Dzung, and Trinh Sinh Nha. Each of whom is highly individualistic in their approach to lacquer’s use and the images that they make.
The visual impact of lacquer is thoroughly different from that of oil and acrylic, even though a great deal of the subject matter is the same_ portraits of young women, temple scenes. And landscapes, street scenes, folk traditions, rural life, and abstraction of the rich diversity of colors which, even when apparently quite bright at first glance, have a certain muted quality which highlights the very flatness of the picture plane. Another challenge for lacquer artists is in the lighting of their works when using the darker tones of red, yellow, and black, as well as subtilities of gold, silver, and eggshell white. There are artists, however, such as Vu Thang, who have changed the face of lacquer by adding such materials as ground stone and sand to their work, giving their pieces an aspect of low relief sculpture.
In this exhibition the artists have stuck to the more conservative approaches found within the tradition, both in how they have used their colors and the themes which they have explored. Cong Quoc Ha, who is well known for his elegant female figures, has recently turned to the Hanoi streets for inspiration, capturing in his works a certain lively line and colors. Figure pieces by Nguyen Thanh Long, Le Van Suu, and Nguyen Kim Thanh suggest the surreal, while the abstract potential of lacquer was highlighted in the work of such artists as Ngo Thanh Nhan, Nguyen Van Chien, and Pham To Chiem.
But anyone looking for the exquisite subtlely of lacquer landscape would certainly find it in the work of Tran Mau (b.1937) -the oldest artist showing _whose delightful Spring Season (2003) speaks volumes for the strength of the tradition.