A new exhibition at the Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College highlights the work of five contemporary Vietnamese American Artists. Randolph College currently enrolls more students from Vietnam than from any other foreign country. Given that fact, and the primarily tragic relationship the U.S. has had with Vietnam historically, a focus on American artists originating from Vietnam is appropriate and meaningful. We are in a unique position to learn from each other about a period in our shared history that continues to be studied, written about, and agonized over.
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The 102nd Annual Exhibition: Contemporary Vietnamerican Art features five artists born in Vietnam who live and work in the United States: Thomas Thuấn Đặng Vũ, Binh Danh, An-My Lê, Pipo Nguyen-duy, and Lien Truong. Through their artwork they promote intercultural literacy by offering ways to consider the complexities of their histories and identities. All of them were affected by the Vietnam War, but not singularly defined by it. In each artist’s work there is a strong connection to nature.
Lien Truong’s surrealist paintings play with the dichotomy between destruction and creation. While neither her Camo nor Craters series depict human forms, they are about man-made trappings and traces of war. Truong’s beautifully painted craters which appear to be located within an imagined landscape are meant to be bomb craters. Truong has transformed this image of implied destruction, relocating it to a fantasy world where craters become mystical ponds, wellsprings of fertility and creation. In her tondo, My Trophy, Your Saint, a confrontational piece about opposing cultural values, the crater once again becomes a symbol of destruction, this time on the skull of an animal which represents radically different things in Vietnamese and American traditions.
In his paintings, Thomas Thuấn Đặng Vũ distills the essence of his culture, his family, his ancestors, and most of all, his extraordinary and painful past. Representational images within his abstract fields are highly symbolic and reference his confusing and traumatic youth. The motifs in his work are objects that he associates with his experiences growing up during the Communist regime. One of his household chores was to be responsible for the upkeep of the family shrine to the ancestors. Images of candles and fruit represent this childhood duty as he supplied the altar table with offerings of incense and fruit twice a day. Images of toads in his paintings refer to a popular Vietnamese folktale about a toad who makes a pilgrimage to appeal to the Heaven King. The story is one of suffering overcome by courage and perseverance. Other images include remnants of the war— hand grenades, gas masks, and loudspeakers which were used to broadcast propaganda messages.
An-My Lê has consistently produced work that questions the changing face of war documentation, by creating images clearly distinct from combat photography. Hers is a hybrid of landscape photography and images of war. This exhibition features three photographs from her series, Small Wars, which were taken during Vietnam War reenactments in Virginia. Writing for the Brooklyn Rail in October 2010, critic Charles Shultz clarifies Lê’s connection to the emergence of landscape and war photography:
Lê’s concentration on the landscapes of war is not new; in fact it renews a tradition that predates modern warfare, going all the way back to late 19th century. Lê works with a large-format camera of the same variety used by Matthew Brady and Timothy O’Sullivan to record the American Civil War. Her photographs are consciously created as works of art, as opposed to Brady’s or O’Sullivan’s visual documents, which were later declared art.
Lê’s photographs Hammock, Lesson, and Tall Grass I were created in a geography more typically associated with the Civil War, using technology of Civil War photography. While the foliage of rural central Virginia may lack a Vietnamese authenticity, it is the landscape in which the last war on American soil was staged, making the setting strangely appropriate.
Similarly, Binh Danh has almost obsessively retraced the steps and revived the technology used by some of America’s earliest landscape photographers working not in the south, but in the west. This exhibition includes works from three different series the artist has developed in recent years: Memory of Tuol Sleng Prison, Military Foliage , and Yosemite. Known for his innovative approach to alternative photographic processes, Danh’s most recent work is Yosemite, the result of his three-year investigation into perfecting the creation of “in-camera” daguerreotypes, working with large format cameras modified to accept silver plates rather than film negatives. These one-of-a-kind photographs (daguerreotypes have no negatives thus cannot be reproduced) pay homage to pioneering 19th-century landscape photographer, Carleton Watkins, best known for his series of mammoth-plate photographs made in the Yosemite Valley in the mid-to-late 1800s. Danh revisits many of the same sites as Watkins, whose life’s work was destroyed when his studio burned in the fires caused by the massive 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Following in the footsteps through the same challenging terrain as Watkins, himself the son of a Scottish immigrant, Danh navigates the scenery from his own point of view and identity as a Vietnamese American within the landscape and history of the United States.
Photographs by Pipo Nguyen-duy also deal with personal identity interwoven with geography, myth and legends of the American West. This exhibition includes a series entitled AnOther Western and (MY) East of Eden. AnOther Western deals with race and gender stereotypes within a playful format of portrait photography intending to mimic tintypes of the Old West. (MY) East of Eden is his most recent body of work, and captures interactions between nature and humanity in stunning large-format color photographs. His subjects are obviously staged. Instead of actually playing, school children are posed with great precision to give the impression of play, as performers blocking a scene imitative of play in order to create a pleasing composition. According to Jennie Hirsh, Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art at Maryland Institute College of Art,
Pipo’s reliance on the natural world as a theatrical apparatus uncovers collisions between nature and culture, past and present, in carefully crystallized visions that inscribe themselves onto classical Western visions of the (un)natural world. Mythological reference and choreographed staging serve structurally and thematically to infuse Pipo’s imagined landscape with an eerie sense of arthistorical déjà vu.
The artists represented in Contemporary Vietnamerican Art explore themes of destruction, creation, memory, identity, history, hope, and sense of place. Their work highlights the complexities of these concepts and invites us to reconsider assumptions about them.
Martha Kjeseth Johnson, Director, Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College
Contemporary Vietnamerican Art is on view from September 5 – December 8, 2013. There will be an opening reception and panel discussion on Thursday, September 5, from 6-8pm. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, 1pm-5pm.
The Maier Museum of Art is located at One Quinlan Street, Lynchburg, VA 24503. (434) 947-8136, firstname.lastname@example.org
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