Young Vietnamese Painters: Le Duc Hai and Le Ngoc Thanh
From an article originally written for John's Life in Thailand.
Reprinted with permission of the author.
Their faces have many eyes that look out at the viewer. Their mouths are full of teeth, but they are deadpan grins, not smiles. We see children with telescopic ears, women in cone-shaped hats, bodies with heads on sideways, hilltribe villagers ?the subjects in the paintings of Le Duc Hai and Le Ngoc Thanh are common, ordinary, people, but the inner lives ?dreams, emotions and psyches ?of these subjects are anything but ordinary.
"At home, I must paint every day. If I don?, I cannot sleep at night." Thus Le Ngoc Thanh and Le Duc Hai expressed their relationship with their art. Graduates of Hue College of Art in Vietnam, they spent two months in residence at Chiang Mai University during the past year, living in a spare room in the back of the university art museum and scraping their meager resources together to pay for their trip.
The artwork of the two brothers, paintings on paper and lacquer on wood, give us visual impressions of what they themselves have seen and experienced in their young lives in their province of Quang Binh, Vietnam. In their paintings, we see images of market women selling fish, women without fancy clothes, men crouching under a barbed wire fence, and children waiting to grow up.
Their work is simplified in form and powerful in its impact. Human figures resolve to geometric shapes, such as the triangular cone-shaped hats, and rectangular or circular bodies. Faces may be round, or may be left as unfilled, black spaces. Elements such as shadow and internal lines are left out, so that the figures stand out in almost primitive fashion.
But art comes not only from what we see, but also from what is inside our minds. Some of the artwork of the Le brothers takes on a remarkable imaginative quality, where the real image is augmented with extraordinary symbols to tell the story.
The twin brothers were born on the third of April, 1975, about 26 days before the official end of the decades long war in Vietnam. The war is a big theme in their work. "Women Waiting," by Le Ngoc Thanh, a deceivingly simple acrylic painting on paper, shows two chairs against a red background. Two women are sitting in the chairs, but their figures and faces can hardly be seen. "These women are thinking about their husbands, who went to fight in the war," explained Thanh. "They are waiting for them, but they haven? come home, so I didn? draw their faces."
In the middle, hanging between the two women is a kerosene lantern. This lamp appears in many of their paintings. "Lamps are symbols of waiting," said Thanh. This theme is repeated again and again in their art: women waiting for their husbands, men waiting for a better life, children waiting for their future. In their village, as in their country, people have been waiting for things to change for a long time.
Lanterns also appear in "Sad Men," another work by Thanh, in acrylic on sa paper. This work features a long row of paintings entwined by barbed wire, which is painted onto the wall of the room in the museum. Each square of sa paper is a different color, and shows a male figure in near fetal posture, circular arms wrapping around heads, torsos and knees. In front of the display is a lantern on a small stool, and in some of the paintings the men are holding lanterns.
The plight of children also concerns the young artists very much. "Children Dreaming," by Thanh, is a series of nine paintings on sa paper which were hung on a wall in three rows. "Children have a hard life in my country, they must work a lot and they don't have time for play or for pleasure. But when they dream, that? the only time they can get away, and imagine a different life for themselves."
The identification with country is strong in the two brothers. "Look to My Country," by Le Duc Hai, acrylic on sa paper, was created to show the feelings of the artist being abroad. "My body is here, but my mind and my heart think about my country," he explained. The paper is a deep red, and the other colors are equally intense. Two faces look out across the painting, each face with four eyes. The hair of the two heads is stylized, long and flowing, like that of the two brothers. Beyond the faces lie an array of symbols, such as dots, hearts, and lines.
The extra eyes have special meaning. "We look at history, we look into the future, we need eyes for seeing many things," said Hai. Part of good art is seeing, and the brothers realize the importance of this. The multiple eyes appear in several other paintings, indicating a willingness to imagine, dream, and think about not only what is real, but what is possible in the future.
In addition to their acrylic paintings on oil paper or sa paper, the brothers have done a great many lacquer paintings. They brought several of these paintings with them to Thailand, and they described the process of making these paintings to me.
When the brothers make a lacquer painting, they first cover a piece of wood with a canvas, and apply about ten coatings of oil. After this preparation, they must wait about six months before using each one. Then they use lacquer paints and paint their picture. Afterwards, the painting must be dried, which may take a long time in the hot climate of southeast Asia.
Sometimes, they add special effects to the painting by using special silver paper under the background. This will make the painting reflect more color, and seem metallic when it is finished. Another technique is to add crushed eggshells to the paint, so that broad areas of color take on a mottled effect. This technique can be seen in a many of the paintings.
After the lacquer painting dries, it must be sanded. Once it is finished, it will have strong and true colors, and will also be much less vulnerable to elements like water, and accidents or breakage. The lacquer paintings also don? need to be framed, as they are self-contained and complete by themselves.
Geometric shapes can augment the design of a composition. In "Women Selling Fish," by Thanh, the artist joins two objects ?the women? conical shaped hats ?together to create a new shape, and also to create powerful lines which dominate the layout of the composition. The top line of their hats becomes a horizontal line that runs across the painting, and the inside line where their hats come together makes a vertical line which is extended from the top to the bottom of the painting. With these powerful lines, the whole composition is bisected and divided into quadrants. Having done this, the artist places a fish in each of the top two quadrants, facing outward from the center, while the women? faces look away from the center in the bottom two quadrants. In this way, everything in the painting seems to emanate outward from an origin point where the two lines intersect.
The fish reappears in many of the lacquer paintings, being used both as a symbol for food, sustenance, and as a source of income for the fish sellers. Women, also, seem to dominate these paintings, being the ones engaged in the activity which feeds both them and the people of their communities.
Color in these paintings is clear, warm, and applied in generous brush strokes. Strokes may be visible, with a second shade seeping through from the background, or with another tone (often a metallic gold or copper) brushed lightly on the top. Crushed eggshell may help mottle an area of coloration, giving it a lighter shade. Internal lines and crosshatching adds texture to an object, and sometimes these areas are filled with contrasting colors to give a checkerboard effect. Geometric shapes can be found in both the major outlines, such as the triangular hats and round faces, and in the less noticeable areas, such as the crosshatching of the fish. Style, line, color, composition, and subject all add to these paintings, and the more one looks at them, the more there is to see.
Le Duc Hai and Le Ngoc Thanh are dedicated and talented artists. They live for their art, every day, choosing to express themes in life around them rather than in distant or classical subjects. Their enthusiasm is strong, their lives are young, and their careers are just beginning. I look forward to seeing their artwork develop for a long time into the future.
© Copyright 1999, John Irvin
Published on 1/1/00