The Past in the Present
Three Vietnamese artists fuse folk and modern forms

July 22, 1999


Legend has it that a dragon and a fairy gave birth to 100 eggs, which developed into a Vietnam both divided and united, embracing the mountains and the sea, deep tradition and an uncertain future. Though shattered by centuries of war and economic hardship, from the shards of fragile eggshells began to emerge a weak but strengthening bird-the new Vietnam. With the rebirth emerges a new generation of Vietnamese artists who unite ancient tradition with the freshness of renewal.

Cries, Whispers and Remembrances is an exhibition featuring works on silk, paper and canvas by three of the new artistic offspring Vietnamese artists Nguyen Cam and Phan Cam Thuong, and Finnish artist Maritta Nurmi, who lives in Vietnam. The diverse work of the three artists can be viewed through Aug. 14 at Pacific Bridge, an Oakland gallery devoted to contemporary Southeast Asian art.

To the ordinary person, the words "Vietnamese art" might evoke images, if any, of ornately-embellished temples and perhaps the country's renowned silver lacquer art. To fervent anti-Communists, they might bring to mind the recent protests of a Vietnamese art exhibit in Santa Ana. But even those relatively knowledgeable about Southeast Asian art may not be familiar with the art currently being created in Vietnam.

Insulated for so long, both from without and within, much of the evolution of Vietnamese art has remained hidden from the world. It is only recently, since the official opening of Vietnam's doors, that we can see a new approach that melds traditional subjects with contemporary styles or vice versa.

Even though the works in this exhibit are not accompanied by titles or names, viewers will be able to recognize each artist's distinctive style. Still, a common thread runs through these artists--they all respect and incorporate Vietnamese history, tradition and ritual.

In fact, Phan describes individual expression as a dilemma, saying, "We are a collective society of the same country, the same family. We are always helping each other and often see our neighbor as our family. In this context, how does one stand alone?"

Each component of the exhibition's title, Cries, Whispers and Remembrances, refers specifically to one of the featured artists.

"Cries" refers to Nguyen's raw, anguished mixed-media canvases. The unframed sheets are covered with rough rice sacks, rope and sand, and are painted with visceral primary colors or more subdued, earthy ochres and browns.

Recent works by Nguyen, who fled to Paris as a young man, are based upon the conflicting emotions he experienced when he returned to Vietnam in 1994 after 30 years. Confronted with a vastly different and now alien Vietnam, he was overwhelmed by intense feelings, expressed in the urgent, almost primal nature of his art. Spread with simple, oblong shapes and dusted with earth, his canvases evoke the poverty and quietly decaying countryside of his youth.

"Through my paintings," he explains, "I embrace the ordinariness of my forefather's land-its outrages, sufferings, the memories of a country damaged by history's monsoons."

Nguyen's refusal to use frames reinforces the idea that these paintings are manifestations of fleeting memory, nostalgic odes to a bygone time and place.

While Nguyen's work is a depiction of the outside, Nurmi's art is a trek into the inner mind and soul. Taking the traditional medium of Vietnamese silver lacquer painting, she extends its possibilities, creating luminous canvases cocooned in layers of silver leaf and acrylic paint-and ancient art form adopted and modified during her six years of living in Vietnam. While she loved the iridescent, multi-faceted nature of silver lacquer, she felt inhibited by its sedate and static style. Through experimentation, she created her own iconoclastic technique, building texture on canvas with acrylic paint, then covering the textured surface with silver and aluminum, leaf, and finally lacquer.

Meticulously crafted and insanely detailed, her art resembles fine metal or stone relief, much like the intricate wall carvings in temples like Angkor Wat. Indeed, she actually includes rubbings from ancient temples in her pieces, as well as symbols like the egg (rebirth), tears, cockroaches and an enigmatic oval.

More than just glorified aluminum foil, her silver-infused canvases are meant to .show the light that comes not only from the outside from the inner recesses as well," she says. As such, the word "whispers" refers to the artist's quest to lift the whispery veils of illusion that cloud our true selves.

"In Buddhism, there is said to be seven veils of illusion. As each is discarded, a person is said to understand another aspect of the true nature of life and the self," she says.

Finally, the last word, "remembrances," alludes to Vietnam's historical past, portrayed on silk and paper by Phan, a Buddhist scholar. He uses themes and images from Vietnamese folk tales, such as dancers, musicians, monks and pagodas--emblems of Vietnam's religious and political past.

A well-known expert on Vietnamese art history, he chooses simple materials like Chinese ink, natural pigments, handmade paper and silk. Certainly the most conservative of the exhibit's three artists, his paintings have an air of folk art, with its deceiving simplicity and Chagallesque fantasy. He includes all the basic tenets of traditional Vietnamese art in his own paintings: a strong reliance on history, culture, and the use of everyday life as the spring for artistic inspiration.

While some people might think his work depicts a past Vietnam, he says, "The Vietnamese character and ego of the people has not changed from the past up to the present."

Even though cries of passion, pushing aside whispery veils of illusion, and remembrances of history seem like wildly dissimilar themes, these three artists are inhabited by the same spirit-that of the past and present Vietnam. The guest curator of the exhibit, Suzanne Lecht, explains, "Possessed by a reverence for the mystical in life, each pays homage to ancient tradition within a sense of quiet awe of the beauty of the sacred."

Perhaps the true essence of the exhibition is best expressed by Nurmi's enigmatic oval, which "the opening, the gateway to something else," she says. "It is hope."

Incidentally the oval resembles an egg, a universal symbol of rebirth. And as Vietnam is reborn and moves forward, the artists carry the past with them, creating art which is both timely and timeless.

Cries, Whispers and Remebrances is on exhibit through Aug. 14 at Pacific Bridge, 95 Linden, No. 6, Oakland. For more information, call 510-451-8840.

CLICK HERE FOR Cries, Whispers and Remembrances

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.