Click on the image above for a larger version.
KVT on Pham Huy Thong at the Bui Gallery
Over the past month we’ve seen three important exhibitions by artists with painterly voices. Two (Nguyen Huong Giang and Do Anh Tuan) were only exhibited for a week due to the ultra high cost of renting exhibition space (from 1.5 to 3 million VND a day which is not peanuts in anyone’s language). Giang had an introspective though important feminist voice while Tuan’s was investigative and probing.
The latest is Pham Huy Thong at the Bui Gallery until the end of December. It’s a very provocative body of work that teeters on the edge of official acceptability with a couple unable to show their faces or impish bottoms. It’s the sort of show in which the characters almost leap from the canvasses and make you part of the action.
Since his 2007 Temple Guardian series – that grew naughtier and more provocative the further outside Vietnam the artist was able to wield a brush – his paintings have titillated most and outraged some conservatives. His work has an old-fashioned cartoonish edge to it that allows biting comment to slide behind veils of cynical humor that hide innocently behind thick brocades of belly laugh or the lacey scrims of disillusion.
It’s a grand and gorgeously pink show at the Bui and those lucky to have an impish mind set will easily find themselves in a wonderfully inventive and wildly creative womb inhabited by hundreds of umbilically joined cherubs (or whatever a wingless cherubin is called in Vietnamese) none of whom seem to have the slightest wish to escape their world of wild imagining and willful machinations and be born. These cherubs represent the 100 children of Lac Long Quan in the Vietnamese creation myth before they are dispersed on their journey to the mountains or down to the sea.
In this show Thong never denies or apologizes (and never needs to) for his deliberate appropriation of images from other artists be they Theodore Gericault’s ‘Raft of the Medusa’, iconic American war photographs, the Chinese artists who broke ground and offered Chinese art to a wide eyed world audience in the nineties, or his own colleagues who thread their brushes with similar idealism and contorted humor. It’s his ability to intelligently and intellectually appropriate and rephrase that puts him on a razor edge of contention. On the opening night how often did I hear the disparaging phrase “too Chinese!’ or ‘not original ideas!’? Too this I say bullsh8t. As I travel the art galleries of the western world I see so many artists of Thong’s genre and stature who rework their opinions onto the original concepts of others and who produce stunningly effective works. Could we call them the re-creationists?
In a previous show Thong was able to show Dong Ho prints that he’d used as reference points or appropriations beside each canvass but in this show some images (often photo journalists images from the American war) are unavailable for reproduction (copyright and permission) so we have to imagine these, often iconic, pictures. For example there’s the screaming girl smothered in napalm and the monk self immolating.
I don’t usually suggest that viewers take note of catalogue essays until they’ve fully digested their own gut reaction to a show but Joyce Fan from the Singapore Art Museum has written such a great piece about the body of work that I’d suggest you get a copy, sit in the middle of the womb and read your fill. It’s an example to any wanna-be art essayist or critic. No hyperbole or highfalutin’ show-off words – just get down to brass tacks and tell it how it is. Brilliant stuff!
For the next three months Thong is in Malaysia taking advantage of an art residency offer. May his fertile intellect and immense talent take off on even wilder tangents.
This is an art show that you definitely shouldn’t miss out on. It’s at times immensely funny, sometimes tragic. It is full of wonderful cynicism and daring. And don’t forget to take a look the print on the stairs. For those who can’t afford the prices that Thong is being offered or don’t have big enough walls, the delightful prints are an affordable option. It’s all totally collectable.
|Not a reviewer, not a critic, “Kiếm Văn Tìm” is an interested, impartial and informed observer and connoisseur of the Hanoi art scene who offers highly opinionated remarks and is part of the long and venerable tradition of anonymous correspondents. Please add your thoughts in the comment field below.|