APRIL 13, 1998


Pacific Bridge Contemporary Southeast Asian Art GalleryIn March 1995, Geoff Dorn and Beth Gates were biking through Southeast Asia to experience life at ground level. They entered Vietnam from China and into Lao Cay carrying only what they could bring on their bikes.

A few days later, they arrived in Hanoi on what Dorn described as ''a quintessential Hanoi morning. The fog was lifting, and the buildings were revealing themselves gradually in the growing light.''

Every city they'd biked through in China, Thailand and Indonesia was clogged with choking motorized traffic. Hanoi was filled with tinkling bicycles.

''It was a supremely romantic introduction to Vietnam,'' said Dorn.

Exploring the crowded streets of Hanoi, Gates noticed a cluttered storefront where a man was hunched over, feverishly making intricate mobiles out of tin cans and discarded cigarette boxes. It was Vu Dan Tan, a multitalented artist whose studio was in the front of a gallery run by his wife, Natasha.

Natasha, an expatriate Russian linguist, presides over Salon Natasha, whereshe exhibits the works of her husband and his friends. This unassuming storefront is at the heart of Hanoi's blooming artistic life. As with many other travelers in Hanoi, meeting Natasha and Tan was the young Americans' introduction to Hanoi's multilayered art world.

It is a world Dorn and Gates have brought to Oakland by opening Pacific Bridge Gallery.

''We were constantly impressed by the range and intensity of the artists we met,'' Gates said. The idea of starting a gallery and selling these artists' work on consignment germinated once they found space in a 100-year-old warehouse in the industrial area of Oakland near Jack London Square.

Last month, with money borrowed from Dorn's grandmother, they opened the gallery devoted to Southeast Asian art. The first exhibit is called ''Above and Beyond -- An Exhibition of Eleven Vietnamese Artists on the Cutting Edge.''

Many of the artists presented also exhibit at Salon Natasha in Hanoi. Truong Tan, a young, openly gay painter, created a sensation in Hanoi in February 1995 when he opened a show of male nudes. Until 1990, the puritanical government had not allowed nudes to be shown publicly, and even today male nudes are considered taboo. Tan depicted exaggerated genitalia along with mocking declarations about AIDS.

Nguyen Quang Huy, Nguyen Minh Thanh and Nguyen Van Cuong (no relation) are three young artists who share a Hanoi studio. Recent graduates of Vietnam's national school of fine arts, they have shot to fame as painters and performance artists.

Truong Tan and the trio currently are exhibiting in Paris as part of the Printemps Vietnamien -- Vietnamese Spring -- exhibit there. All, especially Truong Tan, are well-known in France and Germany.

Since the political opening in Vietnam in the 1980s and the advent of tourism, Vietnamese art has become a multimillion-dollar industry in Europe and Asia. Do Quang Em's ''hyper-real'' portraits of his wife regularly sell for more than $50,000 in Hong Kong. It is only in the past few years that U.S. buyers have begun to note the flowering of art in Vietnam.

The first gallery specializing in Vietnamese art, Cyclo Gallery, opened in June 1995 in San Francisco. It shows the work of 50 Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American artists on Maiden Lane. Works also can be bought online, said owner Lisa Spivey. The Digital Gallery is at .

Only a few years ago, Vietnamese art was so controversial that ''An Ocean Apart,'' an exhibit that featured artists from Vietnam and the United States, was canceled in San Jose. It was deemed offensive to Vietnamese-Americans.

Curator David Thomas, speaking during an interview then, wondered, ''Why can't we get beyond the damn war and see the depth and beauty of the Vietnamese culture?''

This sentiment is seconded by the founders of Pacific Bridge. Unencumbered by direct memories of war and part of a new generation that views Vietnam not as a war, but as a place with creative and commercial possibilities, Gates and Dorn seek to bring that culture to the Bay Area.

Modern Vietnamese painting had its start in the 1920s, when the French colonial government established Ecole des Beaux-Arts de L'Indochine (School of Fine Arts). It trained a generation of painters from across French Indochina. The French influence may explain why Vietnamese art appeals to the Western eye.

The best known artist in Pacific Bridge's exhibit is Nguyen Trung, whose paintings are sold in Hong Kong and Singapore at prices that start at several hundred dollars and end in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Not all of the artists in the exhibit are Vietnamese. An expatriate Frenchman, Eric Leroux, and American Bradford Edwards, who live and work in Vietnam, also have pieces in the show.

Dorn, an artist, created a visual pun for an exhibit in Vietnam. It is a black suitcase in the shape of Vietnam with a jaunty tag proclaiming ''JFK -- Washington, D.C.'' ''

The suitcase is a symbol of the baggage we have as Americans because of the war,'' he said. ''Although I don't have a memory of the war in Vietnam, I still feel the sadness. I want to put that memory to rest.''

''Above and Beyond'' explores themes of personal and societal transition, Dorn said. The exhibit examines modern life in Vietnam through sculpture made from found material, iconographic ink drawings on rice paper, and abstract andrealistic oil paintings. It is at once serious and playful, using humor to startle preconception.

''We were really amazed at the art, which was very complex, expressive and outrageous,'' Gates said.

This summer, Gates and Dorn plan to host Nguyen Quang Huy, Nguyen Minh Thanh and Nguyen Van Cuong as visiting artists for a few months so they can experience California in the same way Gates and Dorn experienced Vietnam -- among friends.

T.T. Ngu is a Mercury News staff writer.

Pacific Bridge Contemporary Southeast Asian Art, 95 Linden Street #6, Oakland CA 94607

Tel. (510) 45I - 8840 Fax. (510) 45I - 8806 email.

Gallery hours: Tuesday through Saturday 11 am - 6 pm.