KVT – A very powerful journey with Everyman

KVT – A very powerful journey with Everyman

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I’m going to enjoy writing this piece about Nguyen van Phuc’s work at Art Vietnam and the results of my playing with ideas and words reflects my opinions and insights and not necessarily, or even probably, the intent of the artist or the overview of the Gallery.

I’m a real fan of the young artist who’s metaphorically revealing more and more about himself and, consequently, the state of mankind in his first big solo.

Phuc is a very fine painter who manages figures and drapes so well that he would have made a name for himself doing portraits and still lifes. He could have alternated these with conventional landscapes and cloudscapes and still been on a winner. But I’m glad that he turned his very good talents inwards to self portraits of self exploration that become explorations of the human condition.

Some competent artists paint self portraits as a process of self indulgence. Some use them to explore and explain their fragilities. They often look directly at the viewer without concern for pleasing. They bravely invite you to meet them fully and openly in this deeply vulnerable space.

Phuc is in the latter category but, as yet, his characters usually look at a space beyond or away from the viewer, perhaps not willing, or too embarrassed to look them in the eye. Perhaps aggressively daring you to take a good hard look. Perhaps not caring what you think of his self exposure. Because of this I always feel that I am a voyeur in his life whenever I view them. At times it’s so unsettling that I’m tempted to divert my gaze. Sometimes I say **** you and dissect the artist’s intent with an adolescent macho-ness that I thought I’d left behind. Sometimes I see my own vulnerabilities or phantoms of the past being echoed. Sometimes I just stand in front of them and laugh along with the sexuality and double entendre. Finally I feel a vulnerability almost too great and personal to consider.

It’s an intriguing journey through the three levels of the exhibition as you view canvasses that are representative of 4 years work. Even more interesting when you decide to investigate the chronology and zig-zag around piecing together the artist’s development from the awkward awakening to life, individuality, sexual awareness and experimentation with a big bang in 2007.

The 2008 works have the artist in searching, inquiring, introspective mode. At times full of frustration or controlled aggression. And all the time there’s that feeling of sensuousness and explosive sexuality waiting in the wings… or in front of your eyes. Bananas are wonderfully phallic. Shadows portray secrets and urges. Clouds are lascivious.

Is the character downstairs with only a head on the block offering himself up for selfless sacrifice? Is he a martyred hero? Or is he, as I suspect, just tricking and I almost imagine that an errant finger will creep around the block. A knee will appear and a small smile will creep through the lips.

2009 has the character being tested and tempted with improbabilities and impossibilities. Masks and new faces are explored and anonymity probed. Insecurities abound and paths become tangled webs. Obstacles like conformity have to be wrestled. Sexuality and sensuousness becomes a very incomplete measure of emotional contentment though it is still tugging at the edges of the canvasses. A fallen flower perhaps hints at decay to come. The pig – representing an easy life full to the brim – becomes an obstacle trying to trip you up rather than a fellow journeyer for the wide-eyed idealist. Uncontrollable devils and omens wait and watch. The tension that pervades the earlier works becomes as taut as a violin string and somewhere close there is a great desire to return to a perceived innocence of childhood.

2010 is my favorite. The artist takes himself into the realm of the supposedly invincible and finds, as all do, that the world of the hero is flawed. Instead of the mythologies of the Vietnamese, Phuc takes his character into the world of the Greek gods where sensuality and sexuality were main currencies and the penalties for aspiring to be one with those who belonged on Olympus were dire. Is Icarus seen as a junkie with a feather bandage over the needle marks and wings clipped to addiction, or is he a failed suicide? Is the olive wreathed hero an impotent lover? or is it Zeus spurned by Hera? Is Sagittarius raging and roaring with lust or impotent rage… And do you really have to defecate once you’ve reached Elysium?

It’s a sad and lonely series this last one, as it plumbs into the depths of depression, self delusion, rejection, failure and that impotence of will and desire that turns good minds towards dark deeds and self harm. The saddest of the lot is the self portrait that depicts the character as cracked and shattered phallic shard.

I like to think of Phuc representing Everyman in the guise of himself. Everyman in mediaeval morality plays examined the question of salvation and redemption through the use of allegorical characters. The players donned costumes and masks so that an illiterate audience would immediately recognize them. Phuc strips the allegorical players to their underwear and offers their vulnerability to the devils. Morality plays were coarse with sexual undertones and not so oblique sexual references and Phuc doesn’t hesitate to portray desire and carnality. Phuc’s morality play, Act 1, began with physical vulnerability exposed and at the end of Act 4 with the psyche giving way to despair.

Act 5 please!

A powerful journey! Some will see it as specifically a male journey. I tend to view it universally.

Other interpretations are welcome…

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.


  1. KVT doesn’t lie. This is the best painting show of the year. Magnificent images, allegories, allusions and illusions. See it while it still hangs!

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