True Colors?

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Scarlet Cheng is an arts writer and frequent contributor to The Times. She was formerly the managing editor of Asian Art News magazine

There has been a lively resurgence of art--and artists--in Vietnam in the last decade, but little of it has been seen in the United States because diplomatic relations were suspended until 1995.

Now "A Winding River: The Journey of Contemporary Art in Vietnam," a show organized by the nonprofit Meridian International Center in Washington, D.C., has come to the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana, with 75 works made over the last six decades by 53 Vietnamese artists.

The exhibition has been criticized by Vietnamese activists in Orange County, who staged sidewalk demonstrations at the Bowers when it opened last week. Opponents say it gives undeserving positive publicity to the current government of Vietnam, which they label repressive in the extreme.

That artistic freedom is repressed may be true, for although several works laud the workers' state, no dramatic critiques of current society or politics in Vietnam are on display here.

Overall, the works selected are accessible, easy to comprehend and pleasing to the eye. They range from ink on paper or silk to woodblock prints to oil paintings. There also are several works in a medium unfamiliar to us and typically Asian--lacquer, in which pigments suspended in a tree resin are applied in layers and dried, then protected under a transparent layer so that the surface becomes smooth and glossy.

Stylistically, there remain strong folk traditions in rendering people and animals, as well as the influence of 19th century French Impressionism and European modernism in paintings. (Vietnam, after all, was once a French colony.)

It is unfortunate the show was not hung more thoughtfully--that is, in any chronological, thematic or stylistic order that would have helped us view it more intelligently. (Apparently, some works were not available until a week before the opening, so the museum staff was working under some limitations.)

The show does, however, provide a glimpse into the soul of Vietnam, and what emerges are two distinctly divergent modes of being, of thinking--traditional and rural versus modern and urban.

Rural scenes are popular subjects for the artists--natural in a country still very much agrarian, but also safely apolitical. Sectioned rice paddies next to a grove of trees, sleepy villages lined with shops and houses with curved tiled roofs, willowy ladies in long, flowing dresses strolling on a peaceful riverbank--such works evoke nostalgia, a wistfulness for simple agrarian life and values. (And which, if we are to believe such films as Tony Bui's recent "Three Seasons," are fast collapsing in the urban jungle of Vietnamese cities.)

Animal Attraction

Common domestic animals such as cats and buffalo also are popular. In fact, the buffalo would have been worthy of a whole section, since the creature crops up again and again in various permutations--and in various parts of the gallery. Perhaps the buffalo is a symbol for the hard-working, long-suffering Vietnamese? Their frequency and manner of depiction in the art indicate as much.

Some artists show the creature in a folk-artsy style, as in the zodiac illustration of Nguyen Tu Nghiem's "Year of Binh Rat." Tran Quoc Long presents the three elements of "Girl, Buffalo and Moon" drifting about in the ether in a dreamy, Chagall-like fairy tale.

One of the controversial works, "Love," a work in lacquer by Dinh Quan, shows a long red buffalo with two heads--or maybe two buffalo with their hindquarters overlapping. Their geometric faces stare out to the central figures--two lovers floating in space. Some protesters said they thought these buffalo symbolic of the masses, and the red dripping from their torsos was emblematic of the blood shed by peasants for the revolution.

"To me, it symbolizes a much older theme--fertility, the balance of male and female," said Janet Baker, curator for Asian art at the Bowers. She pointed out that oxen are symbols of male virility in a number of cultures.

"It's more erotic than political," Baker said of the work.

Hong Viet Dung's oil painting, "Red Buffalo," is starkly Minimalist. Using a chalky white line against a rough reddish background, he has drawn a strong, bold buffalo, its head turned to look at the viewer. It recalls a Lascaux cave drawing from prehistoric France, so simplified as to become a powerful icon of the natural world, and so reductive as to be completely modern.

Speaking of modernity, the exhibition raises a number of questions about the role of women in this brave new world. (This could have made another interesting grouping.) "Young Woman Forging Steel," one of the disputed pictures--and one nearly removed because of the controversy it generated--shows a woman in military uniform handling tongs in a foundry. Protesters saw this as propaganda favoring the Communist regime, but it also shows a woman in a nontraditional job.

Ley Huy Tiep's controversial "Creation" tells the story even more vividly, and it is a far better, more complex painting. The central figure is a woman in her 30s, with a ponytail, a red vest and loose trousers. She stands, facing left, a paintbrush in her right hand, a pot of red paint in her left. On the table before her is a artist's palette, tubes of paint, a newspaper, books, a pot of Easter lilies and a world globe.

Behind her, in the upper right corner, is a factory-construction site where women are at work--one as a surveyor. In the lower right corner, a child plays on the floor with her toys.

Ley's painting clearly celebrates the worlds of creation in which a woman can participate--artistic, occupational and, of course, procreative. But female artist Bui Suoi Hoa--one of only five women in this show--addresses the reality of women's lives.

"There are many women artists in Vietnam," she said in the exhibition catalog. "However, most of them stay unrecognized. Life is difficult and they are burdened with all the responsibilities of the house, in addition to their art."

Such concerns are reflected in Bui's works, several of which are included in the show. In broad, impressionistic strokes of the brush, her "Garden at the Window" shows a woman sitting at a desk staring out at a garden. "At Home" shows an artist's studio--probably her own--in all its chaotic glory. Through a doorway to an adjoining room, we see the woman of the house tending to some chore, while in the foreground, in the studio, her canvas sits on its easel, glaringly blank.

So while Communism's official line is one of equality of the sexes, women find themselves having to juggle work of the family and society with work of their own. It's a tricky balance many working mothers in this country can relate to.

Modern Sensibility

Some of the most interesting works in "A Winding River" show a modern sensibility percolating from beneath layers of tradition and politics. These include paintings by Nguyen Tan Cuong that would not be out of place in a West Hollywood gallery. Nguyen has an intuitive touch for how to handle paint, texture and empty space.

Against flat grayish backgrounds, he paints his subjects in thick impasto--a rather cadaverous fish on an unfolded piece of paper in "Fish" and teacups and a teapot in "Still Life with Tea Cups."

Another wonderful work is Tran Van Thao's abstract "Night and Day"--10 blackened grids around a red center, each panel encrypted with signs and symbols of some secret math formula. It is a work that evokes mystery without providing answers, a quality that unites some of the finest works of contemporary art.

"A Winding River" provides a rare opportunity to see a range of modern Vietnamese art, and although it is hardly groundbreaking in an artistic sense, it is full of variety and vibrancy. If only the works had been presented with more context, in the way they were hung and accompanied by more analytical or interpretive wall text, viewers could have gleaned a broader, more long-lasting lesson.

Ironically, the political tempest over the show has had some positive fallout. It has brought welcome publicity to the usually low-key Bowers Museum, and in the first week, more visitors.

It also is strangely encouraging to see that art can still provoke such public outcry, that some people still believe visual images can convey, even influence, powerful ideas and emotions. In the art world these days, the controversy is often over sex (too explicit) or political correctness--but political correctness in a socioeconomic context, often having to do with gender or race.

In the case of "A Winding River," the controversy is about politics in a geopolitical sense. As one Vietnamese demonstrator said, "They should know it [the exhibition] hurts us, because the wounds are not yet healed."

To suggest that this exhibition could lay open those wounds is to give it a power many artists and curators today would truly envy.

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