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