Vietnamese American Stories Tell Many Tales
Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens, San Clemente
Through March 5, 2023
Written by Genie Davis
Hung Viet Nguyen creates art that breathes its texture, line, and motion. His wide- ranging solo show, Vietnamese American Stories, now at Casa Romantica in San Clemente, offers works from his main series of paintings, Sacred Landscapes and Ancient Pines, as well as works from Coastal Sensation and Personages. But that’s not all: Nguyen also displays works he infrequently has the space to exhibit, his mixed media Art on Cigar Boxes, created on box tins, and works on panel from his Places series. There are images from Black & White, a series of artworks using pen and ink on paper, which given the vivid colors and thick rich paint he is known for, are a lovely monochromatic surprise. There are seven series in all represented in the exhibition.
Created in a variety of different sizes, primarily within the last several years, but a few from years past, the prolific and spiritual painter even includes four artworks that were lent to exhibition from private collectors in Culver City and San Clemente.
It is a museum quality show, one that affords Nguyen the space to present a variety of lustrous works that are permeated with color and depth, as elegant and rich as they are quietly meditative. That is no contradiction: the artist uses his profoundly lovely colors and patterns to create work that is at once vivid, galvanizing, and deeply peaceful. It is to art what watching the sunrise is to the course of a day.
In “Sacred Landscape IV #47,” Nguyen gives us a lake reflecting soft white clouds nestled among boulders, behind which vivid pearly pink flowers bloom, exhibiting the quality of clouds themselves. Of the many soaring landscapes the artist has created in his multiple Sacred Landscape series, this is the first painting I have seen that reflects clouds in water. The effect is peaceful and luminous, with a darker green edging the aqua water close to shore. It also recalls that dizzying childhood feeling of making summersaults and looking from sky to water, marveling at the reflections, the dazzle of light, being momentarily disoriented and unable to discern which element of nature you saw.
“Ancient Pine #11” is a golden but worn tree, affected perhaps by our changing environment. Nguyen’s Ancient Pine series is set in the Ancient Bristle Cone Pine Forest in California, a tribute to the resilience and fragility of these long-lived trees. This tree appears wounded, with only one portion green and lush. The rock speckled ground evokes a drying land, and there is a sense of elegy about it.
“Coastal Sensation #3” from the eponymous coastal series, is a shiveringly luminous body of blue and green water on which dark seaweed floats like spiders. Running through the middle of the large, 48” x 36” canvas, there is a spit of land, riven by caves, fertile and green.
In the more diminutive 12” x 12” “Personage #11” from the artist’s series of the same name, a blue wave rises like a tuft of feathers from what could be a jeweled boat, or a shimmering shell. It also evokes a mysterious plant, with gold feather-tentacles arising from black petals around the central shape. Above it, a blue orb on a cloud-like pale green, floats – seed, pearl, or mysterious moon. More abstract in concept, this work is an intricate, beautiful puzzle.
A very different work is the ink and watercolor “Country Girl,” from Nguyen’s Places series. Working on panel, he has created a poignant image of a barefoot girl in what appears to be a Vietnamese village. It offers an evocative sense of place, and beneath the burnished gold colors that dominate, it creates in ink cross-hatching and patterns the textures that the artist also accomplishes in his scored and layered thickly painted landscapes.
Equally lovely is “Whale Saves Us,” a fable at sea painted on a tin cigar box. Here, people adrift on a turbulent blue sea, one person with hands raised in prayer, offer supplication to a mammoth whale rising up from the water behind them.
“Crying Over Dead Land” is a poignant, quiet, ink-on-paper drawing from the artist’s Black & White series. Hands are raised to cover a face which also resembles tree branches or plants rising to cover a stump on the ground. In the distance a denuded, dead tree stands starkly white against black; small black stick-figure-like people lay scattered on the cracked, parched earth, like discarded leaves. This piece seems like a natural continuation of the fading land around Nguyen’s painting “Ancient Pine #11.” It is also rather miraculous, that so much detail, so much profound beauty can be created in black ink from an artist whose many other works are a song of multi-colors.
In each of these series, the viewer is struck by the artist’s sense of the power, beauty, and inclusiveness of nature, of its delicacy and man’s role in sustaining or destroying it. To see so much of Nguyen’s work, the epic variety of his many series in one location, is more than worth the drive from Los Angeles south.
Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens 415 Avenida Granada San Clemente, CA 92672