ASIAN ART NEWS 1998
By Shannon K. Curry
Of the many faces of contemporary Vietnamese art one of the most striking is that of figurative. In all its diversity, Vietnamese figure painting covers a wide variety of emotion and style. A recent collaboration in Ho Chi Minh City showed how powerful artistic statements can be made through figurative art.
There are many visual arts awards throughout Asia in which artists address numerous different problems and concerns in painting and sculpture. The challenge of any award, of course, is to promote that which is considered the most accomplished in its field. But the challenge of a new award is to establish something that is different in content, demanding of high standards, and a challenge to the artists involved. The H&S Awards, which began as a simple idea in 1993 and was finally realized in 1997, set contemporary Vietnamese artists in Ho Chi Minh City the challenge of making works that depicted the theme of Man and Woman. It was a challenge gladly met by a wide range of artistic talents and produced some extremely fine paintings. Among the artists included in the contest were Bui Ngoc Tu, Tran Thanh Lam, Nguyen Thanh Binh, Nguyen Quan, La Hon, Do Hoang Tuong, Ca Le Thang, Dao Minh Tri, Hoang Minh Trang, Tran Van Thao, and Ho Huu Thu.
H&S Awards, with prize money of US$ 10,000, had a unique structure. Designed as a contest, it brought together some of Vietnam’s most established artists who are resident in Ho Chi Minh City, although many of them originally came from other parts of the country. These artists are clearly inspired by their native land which serves as a great source of creativity for all. Many of their images and motifs are still rooted in their individual regions, religion, culture, and philosophies. As well as the traditional cultural influences on these artists and their work rapid modernization and social change have also played a significant role in their work.
Twenty-three artists were chosen for the contest by the organizers from Europe, the United States, and Vietnam that included Marc Hurner, director of H&S Gallery, Belgium, after which the Award was named; myself as an art collector and director of Global Gallery, San Francisco; Antoine Savary, director of S.T.S Industries SA, Switzerland; Cesare Rancilio, director of Group Palladium and creator of the unique cultural center Espace Kiron, Paris; and with the collaboration of the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Association and its deputy general secretary Dao Minh Tri.
Each artist was requested to make two paintings, oils on canvas, on the set them for the contest. The guidelines, however, were not intended in any way to confine the artists’ creativity but rather to encourage each artist to show the widest possible diversity of styles, technical skill, cultural and ethnic influences, and individual creative expression. It was also hoped that the results would indicate to a greater or lesser degree the collective direction of contemporary Vietnamese artists working within the set theme, and, to some extent, beyond it.
The quality of the works in the contest ranging from individual portraits to group, and in styles that covered realism and abstraction to surrealism was generally of a very high standard. The final presentation of the 46 paintings created by the 23 artists showed just how visually rich contemporary Vietnamese art is. The diversity and commitment of the artists made judging a difficult task. But judging any contest is no easy matter for in essence all participants are essentially winners. The H& S Awards jury was made up of Suzanne Lecht, Marc Hurner, Ho Huu Thu, Ca Le Thang, and Dao Minh Tri. The three winners they selected were Tran Thanh Lam Man and Woman, Family by La Hon, and Family by Do Hoang Tuong.
Family, love, sensuality, friendship, sadness, loneliness, male and female harmony as well as discord, romance, and personal pain, all of these were present in the final works. Each of the three artists winning works exemplified to some extent much of mood of the whole Awards. Tran Thanh Lam ( b. 1949), who unfortunately died in July 1997, made a work tinged with sorrow and universal symbolism which possessed surreal and cubist elements in its composition. La Hon very pure representation of the traditional triangular family suggests not a look backward, but one in which the future is eagerly awaited through the child eyes. Do Hoang Tuong ( b. 1960) is a young and gifted artist. His family, however, is a very different on from that of La Hon. Here, in predominately red and black, is a forceful work which suggests in its directness and abstraction the suffering in a society in which traditional values are being eroded.
While the first three winners works might suggest that the Awards works were wholly conservative, this is far from the case. Bui Ngoc Tu (b. 1936), Dao Le Huong(b. 1965), and Huynh Phu Ha have a gaiety about them. Their works, with the fauvist tough of bright color, had elegantly brisk lines and character. Pam Do Dong (b.1940) and Phan Mai Truc (b. 1945), both of whom spent much time fighting in the jungle during the war, have embroidered their feeling and their works exude a certain tenderness dating from this period. They have associated their work with the landscapes and media they use to, silk, watercolor, and wood sculpture. The artists Hoang Minh Hang (b. 1946), Le Ngoc Linh (b.1949), and Tran Van Thao (b. 1961) in from their work with a bright palette and classical symbols two lovers, the rock a woman, rural scenery, and so on. Their work hesitates in a romantic world between symbolism and lyricism.
Where La Hon has a vigorous technique with low tonality in color and cubic angular figures, Nguyen Lam (b. 1941) and Ho Huu Thu (b. 1940), who usually paint abstract works on lacquer, have integrated warm, brown subdued color and non-figurative elements in half of their figurative works. Nguyen Thanh Binh (b. 1964) create works that are completely different in the everyday world: Binh work has a dream like qulity to it, while Phuong has a harder edge to it. At heart there is a great simplicity in these artists work that would seem to suggest that in their worlds the most important value of our everyday happiness lies in simplicity. Dao Minh Tri ( b. 1950) represents the latent and primitive instimcts of mankind, while Mai Anh Dung (b. 1967) and Nguyen Thanh Son (b. 1959) have produced more erotic works, tinged with mysticism. The common thread among these three artists is their inspiration in the realistic art of ethnic minorities living in the highlands in the central Vietanm. Nguyen Than( b. 1948 ) is clearly an expressionist painter attracted to serenity in everyday life, while Ca Le Thang ( b. 1949) reproduces the concept that the mind and the body are integrative in nature. In his painting, you find fertile female images among landscapes of mountains and hills, rivers and streams; this is an obvious reference to the immortal women with whom the Vietnamese are familiar in their legends.” When I finished my two paintings, I though they corresponded to the rain and the sun in some wet garden,” says Ca Le Thang.” They are in conformity with the two traditional symbols, noise and rain,” measuring sexual love and nuance and gold,’ meaning fidelity and pure love.”
In the past ten years, Vietnam doi moi ( renovation) policy has exerted changes in almost all spheres of the nations life. Artistic freedom ahs also officially been encouraged, though guidelines are not always clear, and this has proven occasionally a stumbling block for development and self expression. It is now a time for artists to learn how to use their freedom and to become more independent. The current situation is an exciting time as there is a great deal of discussion taking place.
H&S Awards began as a collaborative passion of four people who shared a common interest in Vietnam and Vietnamese art. But it is not the end. The collection of 46 paintings will travel for a year to be shown in Paris, Tokyo, San Francisco, Brussels, and Singapore.