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   December 2008
Page 7    
Dinh Y Nhi, Daughters of Mr. Nguyen I, 2004, gouache on paper, courtesy of Dinh Y Nhi

Exhibition Review: Salt Lake
A Vietnamese Yes We Can
Changing Identities at the UMFA
by Ehren Clark

As I visited the Utah Museum of Fine Art recently, there to see the exhibit of art from the 1960's from the museum's permanent collection (see our blog), I came across the entrance to Changing Identities: Recent Works by Women Artists from Vietnam, an exhibit filled with powerful images that stunned me and drew me in. This unexpected experience proved to be moving, humbling, and enlightening.

Most visitors to the UMFA's new exhibition will be unfamiliar with Vietnamese women: their place in history and their socio/ economic and political role today. One can learn a lot from a work of art and the exhibition on display at the UMFA is educational and inspiring. It is evident from these works that women in Vietnam are experiencing a greater sense of freedom, of expression and egalitarianism in their society. The exhibition explores a national and gender identity that, no matter how small or obscure, can be represented in today's global art community. In a pastiche of media, method and meaning, women artists from Vietnam have a chance to say "Yes we can!"

Since the French occupation, which began in the nineteenth century, the Vietnamese have developed a pronounced national art. In 1925, an art school was established in Hanoi and the first generation of "modern" academic painters and sculptors were educated. One result of this was an impulse "celebrate the diverse expressions of female identity in a changing society," to "emphasize Vietnamese women's individual experience." The present exhibition is a reflection of these developments.

A cross section of artists was chosen for this exhibit, representing the vicissitudes of Vietnamese women. There is a range of Modern and Contemporary works, from the lucid to the obscure, and each artist is represented by a series. Because of this, the UMFA's back hall resonates loudly with the bold, existential journeys of the mind, body and soul of an underrepresented collective demographic.

These artists are not the Asian "wall flowers" one might think Vietnamese woman to be. They are women of strength, unwilling to succumb to their relative obscurity in the world; instead these artists make bold statements about their past, reclaiming their place in today's Vietnam and the world. These imaginative and creative works -- executed in a multitude of approaches -- give a notion of what a woman of Vietnamese origin is really about. If this is representative of most Vietnamese women, they are a formidable force. In these works there is a commanding presence reflecting Vietnamese femininity with a vociferousness similar to what western women experienced in the feminist revolution. These paintings are more than portraits, they are declarations: "I am a Vietnamese woman, I am happy, I matter, I am equal to you -- take it or leave it."

Nguyen Thi Chau Giang was a particularly interesting artist because her work was divided into two bodies, both disparate and equally telling. The first body, painted in 2002, was directly influenced by Mexican artist Frieda Kahlo, another woman in an underrepresented demographic. Perhaps Giang chose her for this similarity, but more likely for the opportunity to use the vibrant, lucid colors, symbols, motifs, and cold direct gaze of the Mexican artist. Just as Kahlo's did, Giang's works speak directly to the viewer as in "Happy Days" (2002) |1|. There is no question in this gaze that Giang means anything but an unequivocal, "This is me, this is my soul, this is my heart, I hide nothing and you can take me or reject me." She does not hide behind her identity as a Vietnamese woman, does not sentimentalize it but states it matter of factly. These are honest portraits in pure Kahlo fashion with their requisite dash of surrealism. She seems to speak for all Vietnamese women.

Her other body of work is entirely different: primitive, organic, earthy, ethereal, archaic and resonating with the role of women in traditional Vietnamese folklore. These pieces seem to represent the heritage of Vietnamese women, revealing to the viewer Giang's origins and why she can now, in her "Kahlo portraits" speak so boldly and directly. A work like "Village Talk" (1999) |2| is very appealing and enlightening for the Western contemporary viewer. We know these pieces are contemporary but they investigate a past that is assuredly sacred to the Vietnamese woman of today. Giang is empathetic to them as women and empathetic to the tumultuous past they and many Vietnamese women led collectively. They are the past and Giang is the future.

In a stunning manner reminiscent of Matisse, with abstracted hues and semi-abstract form, Ly Tran Quynh Giang paints women of her country as few women will paint women. Her portraits do not gaze at you, they are at war with you; and as a viewer you lose. The viewer undoubtedly cannot help, as I was, to be shocked by these steely eyes that don't gaze at you but through you. These are commanding presences, conveying, in works like the small portrait "Giang" (2002) a defiant emotion: "don't cross my path or you will not make it back." I found it a thrilling encounter to find such power in a work of art, to not look but to be looked at, to be a little afraid! One gets a notion that there is a change occurring for women in Vietnam and if these women are in a feminist era, with other Vietnamese women artists on par with these works, they will assuredly accomplish the victory they seek.

The ghost-like pastel drawings of Dinh Y Nhi are the ones that first caught my attention and imagination and led me into the exhibition. These fantastical gouache on paper drawings, like "Daughters of Mr. Nguyen" (2005),|0| are each a series of young girls, drawn in an abstract, child-like manner, uninhibited and innocent but also haunting. The viewer knows nothing about these works. Who is Mr. Nguyen, who are these daughters, why are they painted in a childlike manner, why is each daughter homogonous with the next, why are they painted in repetition? These answers are not provided, yet one has an eerie sense of innocence lost, an uncanny, almost palpable sensibility that Mr. Nguyen is not an honorable man. These daughters float, like ghosts, in space -- they are already lost souls.

The artists discussed above perhaps are painting and opening themselves boldly and proudly, "in a Kahloesque manner" or challenging you to submission in the Matissesque portraits, to make sure that these "Daughters" will have the future they deserve and will grow up to be strong women and be able to say "We're here, we're Vietnamese women, we are strong, get used to it."

Changing Identity: Recent Works by Women Artists from Vietnam is at the UMFA through December 28 (please note: this is a new closing date). The exhibit is organized by International Arts & Artists, Washington, DC, and supported in part by the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation and the Henry Luce Foundation.


Exhibition Review: Salt Lake
Reflections of an Imperfect World
International Holga Exhibit at Saans

by Lane Bachman

Holga -- the name may sound intimidating, but it is the most recent fad in the photographic art world. Shaking off humble beginnings in China as a cheap alternative to more expensive cameras, the Holga has re-emerged as the choice form of expression for a certain type of hipster. We can’t help but see this camera first as a fashion accessory, like a Blackberry or an iPod, and secondarily as a tool for the creative process. But good things can come from the fashionably banal, can’t they? At least until they come up with the one step Holga™ Filter in PhotoShop.

Saans Downtown, at 173 East 300 South (Broadway), has again successfully cultivated an entire exhibit and accompanying book focused on this phenomenon. This carefully hung culling of 150 images was handpicked by two noted jurors, Holga photographers and devotees themselves.

Amanda Moore and Steph Parke weren't put off by the over 400 entries, and must have relished the thought that they were able to select Holgists -- um, Holguistas? from all over the world. Of the 400+ submissions, only 65 artists were chosen to exhibit. Besides the usual rigorous aesthetic criteria jurors must wrestle with to prove up the relative value of a work, it is evident that these two jurors had to deal with the antithesis of these official “regularities”.

What links these works is, of course, the limitations of the Holga as a photographic machine. Intrinsic to the Holga is a vast array of camera-dependent defects and quirks that would be considered obsolete in the antiseptic world of modern digital cameras. The very features considered fatal defects in a "normal" camera have become the most treasured Romantic assets of the Holga. The trademarks of the Holga -- the flatness of the color space, the light leaks and the surly vignetting that strangle the image on all four sides -- are totally unpredictable and somewhat disquieting. For these Holgafficionados, the Magic 8 ball that is the Holga is a positive attribute for both their process as well as the resulting 5”x5” image.

This anti-aesthetic is what bonds the Holguistas together. This band does not want perfection: they are striving to unleash creativity. They are on the hunt for some fatal encounter with chance. The pursuit of process (even random) is decidedly creative, perhaps in proportion to the unpredictability of the outcome. It’s as if these artists are tired of exactness in image and the myriad of choices presented to us in this easy-serve digital world. They want flat, surreal images embodied in the nostalgic-sentimental format and pleasing softness intrinsic to the plastic lens of the Holga.

By questioning the conservative interests of “straight” or perfect aesthetics, these photographers draw attention to the importance of the anti-aesthetic. For example, in “China Retro Style Again" |1| by Sophie Masse, the artist employs the dreamy cambering of the Holga’s vignetting to smash us into the diagonal elements of the frame. This line is implicit, yet invisible, being echoed in the brutal diagonals of the phone booths, rhymed with the street and power lines. Of course, vectors derive from an ancient understanding of composition and will forever be around. Perhaps the crucial difference in this case comes from realizing this effect without an exactly preconceived outcome.

While these charming anomalies hanker after a sort of psychic indifference, a disinterested touch of imperfection, Masse’s image paradoxically ignites a vague counterdesire through its channeled elusiveness. We want to chase the subject, nail it down more definitively. The flatness of the monochromatic fore and background, contrasted with the surreal flash-tone of sickened orange and the distorted roughness of lens, this image is a perfect example of how these happenstances may happily benefit the image as a whole.

Another way we can see the anti-aesthetic of the Holguistas working is in their subjects. Taking into account the chimerical – shall we just say perverse? -- nature of the Holga and its impishly surreal and often dark qualities, we can see how images otherwise and apparently innocent may be subverted, even made unwholesome. The audience's experience and feelings feed on what they are drawn to and also repulsed by. Viewers' natural attraction to subject matter becomes gnarled up with the Holga's sentimental-perverse coloring. A prime example of this is "Hands up, Stands up" |2| by Brett Johnson:

The photographer's choice of black and white favors the sentimental value, as does the obvious playfulness of a child as subject. Without further inspection, the viewer might comment on just the "beauty" of this image, as if it were just an early photograph of Lewis Carroll's -- the innocence of a girl frivolously playing in a field. This feeling is brought short by the darkness of vignette descending upon her from all angles, the tip of the dutch angle (ever more disturbing in the square format) and her disembodied stumps of legs cut off by not only the torso but at the knees as well. This disturbing anti-aesthetic is achieved by forcing our attention to the unpleasurable aspects of this photo, more significantly in our capacity to be drawn to these. This photo effectively convinces us of the beauty of the arcane and the unpleasurable. The execution could not have worked better with any other camera than a Holga. The dark "imperfections" of the subject matter complement the Holga's technical "imperfections," as they yield a perfect balance in "Hands up, Stands Up."

Saans' new Holga tradition alongside with Ms. Moore and Ms. Parke's excellent selection is a showcase full of risk, unpredictability and chance. The perfect elements for an interesting exhibit AND shooting with everyone's favorite hunk-of-plastic insta-art machine.

HOLGA Show 2008 will be exhibited at SAANS downtown through January 5, 2009.


Photograph by Jordan Seldin
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