I took a quick peak at the gallery one minute before it closed on Saturday. The work was good, but I was lost in terms of the cultural factors. I know about the Vietnam War, but I am young enough that I am ignorant about the nation. Most of the Vietnamese people I have met were Catholic, but I am pretty sure Christians are an endangered minority on the other side of the world. So when I left I was thinking it looked Asian. I went back during the week and gave myself more time to look.
On the first floor in the center was an installation of ten thrones with papier-mache emperors sitting in a “musical chairs” formation by Simon Redigton and Nguyen Manh Duc, I believe. The first end started with an empty space and a quote from Dante’s Infreno above it. The next space had a ruler on his throne and a print of some torturous event behind it. Five space, five thrones. On the other side, the throne occupied the space behind the empty slot on the previous side. And again on this side, five thrones and five empty spaces. It was odd to have a traditional looking print with demons and evil overlords attacking people next to some familiar sounding text about hell. Of course by the time I get to the tenth quote, I realize that it is Dante.
There are three other artists on this level. Le Quang Ha paints bloated, zombie-like figures with propagandic reds and earth tones. These menacing figures are ugly and in your face. Nguyen Minh Thanh has a group of four large drawings hanging in a banner like manner. The four drawings include elements of the four aces in a deck of cards. With these elements are a face of a buzz-cut girl. She doesn’t quite look Vietnamese and I wonder if maybe the artist is of mixed race. Then there are Le Hong Thai’s laquer paintings. In each one there is a group of people with one or two figures that are painted differently or scratched out and look ghostly in comparison to the others.
At the entrance of the gallery, Dinh Cong Dat has a wall of Smiling Buddhas. They look like masks as the ones that are concave are painted gold and seem to be the molds of the other convex units. The convex are made of magazine imagery and are interspersed on the wall. Mr. Dat also has a ring of sculptures on the second floor. The ring consists of figures of a boy with his backpack and the numbers 1 and 2 painted in a matrix formation on their backs. They look like Christmas ornaments as the thin plastic material is illuminated from within. Contrasting this work are the neurotic paintings, carvings and prints of three other artists.
Dinh Y Nhi paints a series of portraits of a Baquiat-like female character. Simon Redington has a number of woodblock prints with jagged edges, sharp forms and splintery marks. Next to and framing his work are the carved statues of Nguyen Nhu Y. In the next room are some abstract paintings by Maritta Nurmi. She uses acrylic and silver leaf to achieve a textured and shiny look. There are also some portraits of deformed faces that might have been made by Le Quang, but the style is different so I don’t think it’s his work.
In the front room, overlooking Congress Avenue are my favorite works in this show. The traditionally rendered prints of Le Quoc Viet embody the spiritual and humble existence that the rest of the show attempts to display. Besides the overtly political work, there was a suggestion of trying to find a balanced life between the Vietnam of old and the Veitnam of tomorrow. Although Mr. Viet’s work looks more like Chinese or Japanese, the images of a ceremonial procession speaks to the ritual of traditions in ushering in the changes by modernity.
Even with a large portion of the work using black white and red in a very graphic language, I really enjoyed this show. That is until I read the marketing material. Have you seen the Last Samurai? Where an incredibly lucky/unlucky American soldier goes to Japan to train their military and ends up becoming an adopted samurai. That movie was awesome, AWESOME I tells ya, except for the part where Tom Cruise is the only guy left standing among a sea of Japanese samurai corpses. Not even superbadass Ken Watanabe could supercede Mr. Cruise. I kinda feel like that about this exhibit.
From the catalogue I learned that Simon Redington is actually one of the curators of the show and was the artist of the main installation on the first floor. I thought the installation was a little heavy handed and I looked to the work around it instead. But then there is the language used in the artists’ bios. I understand that they are marketing this exhibit as a traveling show and are using salesman vernacular, but they sound very patronizing and a little demeaning. I mean they called one of the artists, “A Savage Messiah”. That just rubbed me the wrong way. Even worse than the Mongolian field trippers at the CRL.
This show was demoted to NOT BAD because of the marketing material.
I’ll tell you ’bout what I sees.