We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

“An Ocean Apart: Contemporary Vietnamese Art From the United States and Vietnam”

An Ocean Apart, an exhibition of contemporary Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American art at the Ellipse Art Center, brings to mind art historian Johan Huizinga’s observation that the visual arts construct a “brighter image of a period than does the word of the poet or historian.” This will come as a shock to those who attend the show anticipating artistic reflections on one of the 20th century’s most devastating conflicts: What kind of images would artists make who lived through or inherited family disruptions brought on by the Vietnam War?

If the visual evidence in “An Ocean Apart” is any indication, the war did not take place at all. With only two exceptions, the Vietnamese work is resolutely decorative and cheerful, and almost every image is pervaded to some degree by French modernism. These works reflect the founding in 1925 of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine in Hanoi and the subsequent spread of European modernist aesthetics. The school was closed in 1945, but the exhibit’s paintings indicate that European—particularly French modernist—inventions continue to dominate Vietnamese pictorial thinking. Considering the aloof elegance of postwar School of Paris painting even in France, the absence of the sort of blunt social narratives audiences have come to expect in the postmodern period should come as no surprise—but it does.

It is probable that the relaxation of controls within Vietnam over the past decade has allowed for the creation of more socially conscious, postmodern art than is represented here. The inclusion of Dinh Y Nhi’s One Two Three Four, a grid with four heads made in response to a newspaper ad seeking “friends for young people,” seems an example of such work. The concept and brushwork are certainly contemporary, but the schematic rendering of the four heads is directly derived from Matisse and Modigliani.

But French influence is not the whole story. These works also evince the adaptation and transformation of foreign elements in terms of native Vietnamese techniques and culture. That culture does not include an indigenous painting tradition, because Vietnamese literati, unlike their Chinese counterparts, did not widely practice or highly value painting as a scholarly pursuit. There is less separation between “high” and “folk” art in Vietnam, and the artists trained at the Ecole des Beaux Arts drew on folk traditions. The school’s first director encouraged this practice and allowed examinations to be held in lacquer painting, color woodcuts, and silk painting. In these media, students were encouraged to apply Western concepts of color and composition. The results, several generations later, are apparent in “An Ocean Apart.”

All three native techniques are represented at the Ellipse. The exhibit includes watercolors on silk and abstract and representational paintings in lacquer; woodcuts are replaced by a monoprint and a clay cut. The latter indicate the show’s aesthetic range: Le Tranh Tru’s clay cut, U Minh Forest, could have been made by any of a number of early European modernists, but Nguyen Duy Ninh’s monoprint, Flute, combines visual and descriptive narrative in ways both familiar and unfamiliar. The combination of the recognizable and the mysterious characterizes much of this Vietnamese work.

Three of the show’s Vietnamese artists work with lacquer, including Nguyen Gia Tri, who has been a leader in transforming lacquer to an expressive art medium. He invented new pigments and techniques, expanding the medium’s range beyond its traditional brown, black, and rust tones, and his Untitled (1968) is both tough and evocative. It’s hard to see the subtle blue and silver hues in the low light at the Ellipse, but it is possible to appreciate the artist’s transformation of line and pattern into formal structures, and to trace his struggle to escape from the decorative into the expressive.

If the works by Vietnamese artists in “An Ocean Apart” are linked by the twin disciplines of traditional materials and motifs and French modernism, the works by Vietnamese-American artists are all over the place. All the Vietnamese work is two-dimensional, but the Vietnamese-American section contains sculptures, photographs, and an installation, in addition to prints and paintings. Though all of the show’s Vietnamese-American artists allude to their ancestry, references to their Vietnamese pasts are either oblique or filtered through the intellectualizing lens of postmodern critique.

Two of the Vietnamese-American works here might be seen as overtly political, but their politics hark back to issues that predate the Vietnam War and even the colonial era. Hoang Bui’s sculptural installation, One Thousand Years of Prayers, refers literally to the Chinese domination of Vietnam and symbolically to efforts at liberation. Two untitled photomontages from Han Thi Pham’s “Reframing the Family” series explore the politics of gender in Vietnamese families and culture. One inserts an image of the artist’s mother into a formal family portrait from which she had been excluded. The second layers images and words to tell the story of a beautiful widow who disguised herself as a man in order to become a monk.

The Field, an intriguing painting by Nguyen Trong Khoi, occupies the middle ground between Vietnamese-American artists who refer directly to Vietnamese subject matter and those who encode it in their work. Khoi’s painting resembles a conventional European landscape, but the natural vista is presented as if seen over a wooden table that stands in the foreground. On the table, the artist has painted a rice plant, a scroll and a pen, a magnifying glass, a book, a grasshopper, and a dragonfly—elements that relate to aspects of Vietnamese agriculture and the problems of its modernization and commercialization. The Field looks like a European painting; only iconography connects it to the artist’s ancestry. Other works, like Kim Tran’s wood-and-metal sculpture Healing Soul and Phan Nguyen Barker’s mud-and-twig construction A Poem for My Mother, in spite of their wall-labels’ interpretive gloss, would be completely at home in a Euro-American avant-garde context.

It’s tempting to consider these Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American artists as archetypal 20th-century artistic figures. Whether in Southeast Asia or the United States, they combine traditions—already a mix of many influences—with contemporary trends and invisible but powerful political and economic pressures. History has put Vietnam in the international spotlight, but there is surprisingly little rancor or angst in these “brighter images,” especially considering the destruction and loss that most of these artists have experienced. In omitting such sentiments from their work, these artists have failed to assimilate both French modernist and Euro-American postmodernist attitudes—which makes theirs a unique and distinctive contemporary vision.