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Viet Lux: An Art Wave

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Xuy Van Feigning Madness: A watercolor on paper by Ngo Quang Nam from 1972

'An Ocean Apart' displays the diverging experiences of the Vietnamese artists who stayed and those who left

By Ann Elliott Sherman

THE CAREFULLY modulated, painstakingly annotated exhibit of Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American artists now on view at the San Jose Museum of Art was clearly designed to steer clear of political undercurrents and focus on artistic developments. The lectures and performances accompanying An Ocean Apart strive to place the works within their cultural and historical context. And aside from a few brief references to officially sanctioned modes of expression and intriguing examples of artists' ingenuity when faced with the lack of materials during wartime and embargoes, art history dominates the commentary provided by the bilingual Vietnamese/English curatorial placards. Photographic portraits of the artists subliminally underscore both their individuality and common humanity.

Nice try, guys. Despite all these efforts to head off the kind of brouhaha that led to the cancellation of a show of Vietnam War-related art three years ago, some members of the Vietnamese-American community still insist that An Ocean Apart is insulting pro-Communist propaganda. Ain't no ocean wide enough when memory harbors a mine field.

The traveling portion of the exhibit organized by the Smithsonian Institution is split between the two side galleries on the museum's second floor, one featuring the work of artists in Vietnam, the other displaying the work of émigrés. The skylighted main gallery in between has been devoted to the museum's addition of art by Vietnamese-Americans based in the Bay Area.

Ostensibly, those offended by descriptions of the changing artistic climate in Vietnam could avoid upset entirely by sticking to the work done on these shores. But they would also miss out on one of the show's most striking dynamics: the struggle of artists still living in the oft-colonialized country to reconcile outside influences with Vietnamese cultural identity and traditions.

SEVERAL ARTISTS pay homage to their roots by using traditional media, but in unorthodox ways that reflect the academic exposure to Western aesthetics provided by schools like L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Indochine in Hanoi or Saigon's Gia Dinh National College of Fine Arts.

Tran Van Can paints scenes from Vietnamese folk tales in lacquer on wood, but he does so in a style that brings the influence of wood-block prints on fin de siècle French art full circle. Nguyen Gia Tri, using the same medium but exploring different finishes, nontraditional color and techniques borrowed from printmaking, creates an elegant, untitled abstraction.

The timeworn still-life genre is given a Vietnamese translation in Nguyen Thanh Chau's silk painting that replaces apples and grapes with lichees, durian fruit and mangosteens, aptly titled Homeland Fruit. Bui Xuan Phai's Small Street, a gouache on paper, mixes Western perspective with the economical brush strokes and enlivening jolts of color found in traditional Vietnamese village arts.

The work of artists who turned away from the influence of the French academies toward the recognized center of their native culture, the village, looks surprisingly modern to the previously uninitiated. These pieces display a reduction down to the essentials of form, swaths of color as an ordering principle, broad black outlines, three-dimensional subjects presented in a flat, two-dimensional plane with multiple perspectives.

As the exhibition notes point out, Nguyen Tu Nghiem's Rooster and Hen, inspired by woodblock prints of the lunar zodiac for Tet celebrations, would be at home in the company of a Picasso. Xuy Van Feigning Madness, a watercolor take on a poster for a cheo (traditional musical-theater) performance painted by Ngo Quang Nam, has a Matissean feel. But then, both Europeans were profoundly inspired by indigenous art.

Photography works as a visual Esperanto in Le Vuong's black-and-white photograph Mine at Long At. The slant of sun on the edge of a line of coal cars becomes a sinuous path to heaven--a revelation of the utilitarian shaped to transcendent effect by shadow and light.

Through a technique--photocopying drawings in black paint on richly colored magazine illustrations and then repainting them--born of necessity when a varied palette of paint colors was not available, Nguyen Tuan Khahn ("Rung") taps the realm where black is a color, and color is a means of expressing emotion rather than a transcription of the actual.

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COMPARING THE WORK of artists who remain in Vietnam with those who now live in the U.S., the generalization can be made that the dislocation, loss and pain occasioned by the war have become a much more defining theme for the émigrés than for their contemporaries overseas. How much of this effect is attributable to postwar censorship of personal expression in Vietnam or the different psychological effects of coping with change in a familiar culture versus the refugee experience is an unanswered question. It might also have to do with the American emphasis on individual expression spurring a different creative response.

The Vietnamese-American artists, especially the Bay Area residents, certainly tend to work on a bigger scale, having traded the intimate scale of their homeland for American sprawl and expanse. While the images and allusions unquestionably reflect their personal and/or cultural odyssey, most of these works are thoroughly contemporary.

In a distinctly modern mode are Hahn Thi Pham's feminist photo-montage series Reframing the Family and Tin Ly's mixed-media pieces combining found objects framed by brushed steel and biomorphic abstract canvases. The slit and sutured, elegiac triptychs of Toi Hoang--especially VNM #8, a kind of temple of stretchers bearing wrapped shapes, artificial flowers snagged in the wire-grid "windows" that reveal bared supports, topographic pours or a smooth "skin" of resin--epitomize controlled catharsis on a grand scale. Vi Ly here continues her abstracted narratives in charcoal and dry pigment on paper with the screen-sized Displaced Land.

In a category by themselves are the monumental earthworks/water-purification systems designed by Viet Ngo, shown here in color aerial photographs. With an architect's sense of form echoing its environs and an anthropologist's cultural awareness, Ngo "draws" in water and duckweed on the landscape. The snakelike curves of his Devil's Lake, North Dakota system are chosen to honor the sacred animal and ceremonial mounds of the Sioux.

If one work could capture the intended spirit of An Ocean Apart, Thai Bui's prayer/garden sculpture Needed #3 comes closest. Installed in the outdoor patio adjacent to the upstairs gallery entrance, two huge interlocking ovoids of dark concrete speckled with white gravel rest on a bed of smooth stones just the right size to clutch in your palm. A meditation on two fitting together as an integrated whole--connection and support without complete merger--Bui's offering nurtures faith in the possibility of communion.


An Ocean Apart: Contemporary Vietnamese Art From the United States and Vietnam runs through Aug. 18 at the San Jose Museum of Art, 110 S. Market St., San Jose. (408/271-6840)

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From the June 6-12, 1996 issue of Metro

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