As Vietnam has become increasingly open to outside influences, its artists have had ever more opportunities...

As Vietnam has become increasingly open to outside influences, its artists have had ever more opportunities to come face with new ideas in the art world. The work of the current generation has come to reflect the changes in the art environment to which is has been exposed. The work of the young Hanoi painter Doan Hoang Lam resonates with the changes he has experienced in Vietnamese society.


              For more than decade, contemporary Vietnamese art has been dominated by a range of artists draw from the immediate postwar generation and an established group of masters such as Bui Xuan Phai and Nguyen Tu Nghiem. By the early and mid- 1990s, however, Vietnam’s art colleges began graduating a new generation of painters and sculptor. Born in the early 1970s, they had only the merest knowledge or acquaintanceship with the ravages of war and dislocation. By the time they had entered art school, Vietnam had opened up to the world and with that opening an entirely new set of artistic trends began to assault their world. Today, they are beginning to make their mark with highly individual works and a vision of the world that is singularly their own.

             Although there are still many young artists influenced by Vietnam’s masters and traditional landscape painting and figurative art, as well as movements such as European impressionism and expressionism, the struggle to find their own voices beyond these influences is uppermost in the mind of the most serious. In the art of those born in the early-1970s, artists such as Tran Viet Phu, Hoang Hai Anh, Mai Duy Minh, Nguyen Minh Quang, Le Anh Quan, and Doan Hoang Lam have eschewed the facile representations of contemporary Vietnamese culture. Their work exhibits senses of urgency, frankness, and a grittiness that is both refreshing and occasionally raw. In their portrayal of the ever changing cacophony of Vietnam’s urban environment and its knowing people there lies an entirely fecund muse that inspires constantly and it far from mundane

             Escaping the restrictive embrace of past traditions and the calculation of current popular trends is not an easy task particularly in a market that has become suitably fashionable among numerous foreign collectors. The expectation among many collectors of Vietnamese art is for work that appears to represent the traditional culture and values of Vietnam. The demure, Ao dai – clad woman design the lake or strolling along tree-shaded streets, the austere monk meditating in the stillness of an incense-filled temple, the farmed bent in toil in the rice paddy, or the laconic landscape are among the most frequently presented images in the popular contemporary Vietnamese art canon. While some of the images are notable for their strong pictorial qualities by the best painters, in the hands of the less talented they have become clichéd.

             Doan Hoang Lam, who was born in 1970, in Hanoi, is one of the most impressive artists of his generation. In his recent work it is clear that he is not interested in marking are that might be considered clichéd or facile. His interest lies in facing his subject head on, seeking within each subject both physical and spiritual forces that combine to make an image of singular strength and character.

             His recent oil Standing Nude (2002) exemplifies many of these qualities. It is a figure that suggests both the elegance of the naked figure in a frank, dramatic pose and certain angst in the manner of its posture. The juxtaposition of the colors he uses  to fashion his figures—a creamy flesh tone, white, black, and a greenish- gray—suffuses his figure with drama and a suggestion of subtle movement. The same is also found in Green Nude (2002). Set against a green backdrop the seated, anonymous, faceless, and rather lonely figure of Green Nude seems to be the pain. The slightly twisted form appears to be alienated, even despondent.

              There is nothing delicate or sentimental about Lam’s portrayal of his figures as Standing Nude and Green Nude show. This lends his subjects a rugged individuality that reminds one of work by such artists as Le Quang Ha and Tran Trung Tin in its honesty and directness. There is rawness, edginess to his line and tautness to forms that describe both his figures’ physical and mental states, many of whom appear to be enfolded in pain. There is also a sensation of weight to his figures that suggest that they have been hewn from some solid material. Indeed, Lam’s work, his line and his awareness of volume and form, points to work by an artist who has been in fluencies by sculpture from a wide variety of areas.

              “I am a painter with a strong interest in drawing and sculpture”, Lam say. “Sculpture attracts me very much. A sculptor like Henry Moore I fine very attractive. His forms are strong and alive. I am also attracts to the sculpture of the minority peoples from Vetnam‘s highland region as well as Affiant sculpture. The form of such sculpture is very natural. So, yes, the sense of weight in my work does come from extent.”

             One of the most demonstratively sculptural works by Lam is his work entitled Mother and Sons (2002). It is a large work in which a mother and her two sons are centered again a yellowish background. There is no hint of time or place in this work. Indeed, in most of Lam’s recent works his figures seem often to be floating in space, without connection to any solid physical reality. In Mother and Sons we see a hint of the influence of a sculptor such as Moore. The line and form, the awareness of human mass, and his sense of color make the figure come alive on the canvas. While one child of bent against his mother’s side, the other is learning towards against her bent legs. There is in this scene a sense of comfort that the mother imparts to her children but, at the same time, there is also suggestion of anguish as well as f distance between her and her sons. Another suggestively sculptural work is the simple nude piece entitled The Back (2002).

Although the flesh tones and line remind one of the powerful nude works by the British painter Lucian Freud (b.1922), the pose Lam adopts for his painting is one common enough among the work of many contemporary Vietnamese painters who wish to express notions of ideal beauty and sensuality in their culture. But under Lam’s brush the figure loses its inherently sensual appeal and becomes rugged and twisted, almost as if crippled by some strange disease. The contours and form of the deformed figure suggest a large boulder in a flat, anonymous landscape. This figure, set in what one take to be a plain room, again hints that Lam is concerned with the alienation of people and that one’s notions of beauty should not be trapper by any set standard. Here, though the figure is clearly distorted, Lam is saying to us: look, is it not beautiful, too?

 In this picture the figure against to be floating, a quality that permeates many of Lam’s best pieces for this expresses an intense feeling that his subjects are forever alone. Another striking quality of his figure is that they are frequently androgynous. At the same time, in almost all of his figurative work, there is a suggestion of the body as a metaphor for landscape, a world in which the body is an integral part nature rather than something separate.

            The geometry of his narrative and the rough edge and tension that Lam achieves in his work is a constant and imparts a direct power to the viewer. This is something which may well come from Lam’s studies both in theater and fine arts. “ I am influenced by the impressionists”, he says. “I care about the structure of the work and I want that the color should express the feeling of movement and the strength of the moment”.

            “I never care about the three- dimensionality of time and space because I don’t really care about the environment in which the subject exists. The center of my work is the figure and the figure isolated. I am not trying to bring real life to my paintings, but it is still there because I am expressing my own reality”.

             Lam’s work moves between spontaneous representation of figure, movement and flow of line, and one of studies predation. As he notes, he sometime sketches many studies before he begins to put pain to canvas, while at other times he works directly to canvas. Be preparing he feels that he is able to control his narrative more firmly than through directly application of pain to canvas. His color are muted which creates are brooding effect.

             “ During painting after preparation with sketches”, he says, “ I pay a lot more attention to the structure of the painting. I am more aware of the line and the sense of volume. When I do this, my color expresses that which is around me in Hanoi a quieter, darker vision of the place. I take emotion of the colors from a broad range of colors around me”.

              Young artists today have a much broader range of influences from which to draw than earlier generations. Lam is draw to both Western and Vietnamese artist who showed immense spirit and individuality in their art. The Austrian painter Egon Schiele (1890-1918) and the Vietnamese artists Bui Xuan Phai (1921-1988) and Dang Xuan Hoa (b.1959) are three odd Lam’s most important influences.

             “I like the art of Schiele because of the strength of his work and the image”, says Lam. “He obviously cared about his own life. He was strong in nature and in department and shows in his work. His work is about his life and those in his life. And through it he expressed his own nature. It is this that I want to do. I want to focus on my own life and that which I see around me. If I can express my own nature and independence, I can give more to people.

             “Of the Vietnamese artists Bui Xuan Phai’s life was an example to other who wanted only to paint. He had great integrity and was honest and independent. His painting vocabulary is something very Vietnamese. Dang Xuan Hoa, like many Vietnamese artists, is close to nature and impressionism. But Hoa has tried to find a new language for contemporary art in Vietnam that is deferent. Whether or not he has been successful is not important to  me. What is important is that he has tried. I am impressed by his technique and the richness of his surfaces”.

             While popular, commercial art will be at the center of many successful contemporary Vietnamese artists’ works, the artists of the young generation of which Lam is a member are seeking something that will dignify the changes and the reality which they see around them. For as the world of modern Vietnam changes, it requires fresh voices through which to express the new world.

Ian Findlay Brown

Asian Art News, Volume 13 Number 5, September/October 2003