MR. NGUYEN opened at Pacific Bridge Contemporary Southeast Asian Art in Oakland on Saturday, November 4th. The exhibition of new works by Hanoi artists Nguyen Minh Thanh, Nguyen Quang Huy and Nguyen Van Cuong is the first time these three dynamic artists have exhibited together in the USA. The trio, well known for their stunning contemporary works on hand made "do" (mulberry) paper, have produced the works in this exhibition while in residence at Pacific Bridge during October 2000.

These young artists work on "do" paper, made in a village outside of Hanoi, because it is one of Vietnam's traditional art materials that is in jeopardy of being lost as imported papers become readily available and affordable. "Do" paper, traditionally used for wood block prints and calligraphy, was also frequently used for sketches by artists trained at Vietnam's "Fine Art Colleges" during the 1900s. For these artists "do" paper is their surface of choice. These three graduates of Hanoi's Fine Art College are renowned for painting contemporary imagery on this traditional paper with Chinese ink and watercolor washes. They have exhibited widely in Europe, Japan and Australia together and individually.

The artist's techniques and content are markedly different from one another.

Thanh typically paints delicate portraits. His focus is the individual. He often places the individuals in the midst of imaginary costumes and scenes that juxtapose elements of traditional and modern Vietnamese life. During the mid 1990s he painted an extensive series of self-portraits. In 1998 he began a series of Vietnamese women, both real and imagined, some young and some old. One from this series featured an older woman dressed in the Ao Ba Ba (loose fitting shirt and pants), sitting in a rattan chair, but decked out with blue hair and green John Lennon glasses - no doubt a combination of the women who sell all manner of wares in the markets in Vietnam and the young women he saw while visiting Germany for an exhibition in 1998.

For this current exhibition Thanh has created a moving series of portraits of Vietnamese Americans based on family photos that friends and acquaintances in the Bay Area provided him. These works similarly place the Vietnamese Americans in clothes and settings that Thanh envisions for them. Thanh uses a dramatic palette of gray and black exclusively in this series. He uses two sheets of "do" paper for each portrait so that they images are almost life size. A few of the paintings, featuring young Vietnamese Americans who may have few first hand memories of their homeland, are pictured in bamboo groves, or dressed in Thanh's version of the clothing worn by Vietnam's ethnic minorities. The images of these hip Vietnamese Americans swathed in ethnic minority clothing brings to mind the tension that exists as they strive to succeed in the USA while retaining some sense of the place where they were born.

Huy's exquisite works offer glimpses of his thoughts, memories and dreams. Huy's works speak of the personal experience. Painting about private matters is a subject still uncommon in Vietnam, where up until ten years ago the government frowned upon artwork that represented anything remotely personal - art was meant to glorify the Nation, not the individual. In recent years Huy has produced striking works ranging from allusions to the village where he grew up, near many Buddhist temples, to the two faced nature of Vietnamese society today where people will say anything in order to get ahead.

In this exhibition Huy's works are characterized by dreamlike juxtapositions of Buddha silhouettes and full lips and bare breasted women with illegible spiraling script floating across the paper. The works are awash in rich colors. He says that these are his memories of other places and times, where he lived as a childÉ perhaps the thoughts of safe, known places that one has when traveling to the USA for the first time?! Huy painted a few works on silk which glow as if lit from within. Also Huy brought three commissioned blue neon Buddhas from Vietnam which emanate a mysterious hue that entrances the viewer. All of these works entice the viewer to revel in the fantastic, the sublime, the bizarre.

Cuong is the only artist in Vietnam whose works openly address social issues. His works offer a social commentary that should be viewed more as global commentary. In the summer of 1998 Cuong had the only solo exhibition Pacific Bridge has hosted. For that show he painted challenging works depicting power brokers as men in suits and the powerless as nude women. Included in his vocabulary of symbols are men in suits with no mouths representing the people who have power and yet have nothing to say - the mindless bureaucrats everywhere. These characterizations spoke to the broad themes of power and corruption that are evident around the world.

For this exhibition Cuong has created a strong series of drawings and paintings based on American money. The works range from small finely detailed drawings of single bills, to larger painted sheets of multiple bills many of which have Cuong's eyes peering out from the Presidential position. His remake of the American Dollar is far more sexy than anything the US mint would dare print. In this exhibition Cuong ventures into the conceptual arena with an installation that makes one think twice about what exactly the Dollar is good for. These works beg the question what does the almighty Dollar really buy?

The exhibition MR. NGUYEN opens a window into the psyche of these three adventurous Vietnamese artists, each blazing their own trail in the maze known as the international contemporary art scene. Given their status as much exhibited and well traveled young Vietnamese artists they are exceptionally well suited to share with American audiences their take on America and Vietnam - each from their own vantage point.

Click to view the works Nguyen Minh Thanh, Nguyen Quang Huy, Nguyen Van Cuong