What war? A new exhibit in Huntington Beach looks at Vietnam through the lens of contemporary art.
By RICHARD CHANG
The Orange County Register
Is it possible to do a show about Vietnam and not talk about war or politics?
Curators at the Huntington Beach Art Center think so.
They have organized "Out of Context," bringing together works in various media by seven Vietnamese artists and six Vietnamese-Americans. The show runs through Aug. 7.
Most pieces have never been exhibited. A handful are decidedly abstract and edgy. All in some way push the boundaries of what's typically viewed as the Vietnamese aesthetic: war, post-war or political imagery, or quaint depictions of lotus flowers and demure girls in traditional ao daidresses.
"We wanted to break down the stereotypes and to show good contemporary art," said Darlene DeAngelo, the center's curator of exhibitions and programs. In March, she spent 10 days in Vietnam and, with co-curator Beth Gates, visited more than a dozen studios in the north and south.
"We weren't concerned about war or politics in any way, shape or form," DeAngelo said. "We wanted to put together an exhibit that showed you what's really going on with art in Vietnam. We were out in houses, deep into the city and underground galleries, and one person led to another person, and that's the discovery that happens."
The curators discovered artists such as Nguyen Van Cuong of Hanoi, whose murals and watercolors on paper are busy pastiches of city life, social observation and personal symbology.
Nguyen Manh Hung of Hanoi plays with jet airplanes and images of labor in his oil-on-canvas paintings. His "Rice Harvest" depicts an assortment of aircraft tugging at carts filled with freshly picked rice stalks.
"I consider the airplanes like people," Nguyen Manh Hung, 29, said during a recent visit to the Huntington Beach Art Center, his first visit to the United States. "Airplanes or cars are just like humans. They're living as people, working or shopping, but with very strong energy, very high speed."
Tran Van Thao of Ho Chi Minh City creates large, highly abstract paintings that echo the works of Willem de Kooning or Philip Guston.
On this side of the Pacific, the curators found six Vietnamese-American artists working in California. Most are in their 20s and 30s, and a few have Orange County connections.
Christine Nguyen, an art-school graduate of UC Irvine, combines drawing and photography in "The Quest for Love and Its Natural Disasters," a wall installation that captures a dark, alternate universe of hybrid creatures.
Lien Truong of Eureka conjures the ideal family setting, with man, woman and child sitting comfortably on cozy couches. The only thing missing from her oil-on-panel portraits: the limbs, hands and heads.
Fatima Hoang of Claremont has constructed a functional roller coaster out of limber steel parts. A small cart climbs precipitously to the 12-foot apex, then swoops down with abandon before starting the process over again.
Hoang, 25, an active air guitar competitor, is also featured in a video jamming to the rock songs "Are You Gonna Be My Girl," "Heaven" and "Paradise City."
"I guess I'm Vietnamese-American, but I've never been identified with it," he said during an interview last month. "I don't want to separate people in those terms. My experience growing up in America is so different from my parents and previous generations, so I don't overtly put (war) into my work."
While overt references to politics and war appear to be absent from "Out of Context," it's hard to ignore the backdrop of more than 100 years of strife and colonization. There are certain subtle allusions to history: the fighter planes in Nguyen Manh Hung's work; the chaos of Hoang Duong Cam's installation; and the missing limbs in Lien Truong's pieces.
In keeping with the exhibit's theme, the curators placed sculptures, paintings, photographs and installations next to each other without identifying where each artist currently resides.
"One of our ideas for the show was not to tell you where they were from," DeAngelo said. "We want you to be able to just look at the work."
In fact, the title "Out of Context" comes from the realization that despite their shared heritage, these artists approach their work in such diverse ways that there is no common fabric stitching them all together.
Perhaps the only common context is one that all artists share these days: operating in an increasingly global art scene and culture that knows no boundaries of politics, commerce or distance.
In conjunction with the exhibit, the center is presenting a series of free cultural events. Today, artists and curators from Vietnam and across the state will participate in a panel discussion about the show from 2 to 4 p.m. On July 29, singer Thuy Linh will lead a trio in a jazz concert from 7 to 9 p.m.
Reprinted from OCregister