Hanoi (Art) Rocks!

You all know the old saying: cold war, warm heart. So as Westminster City Councilman Tony Lam's effigy gets its ass stomped by angry people outside the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, it behooves us to look at what's causing this big giant civics lesson in what a psychologist friend of mine calls "making your needs known."

"A Winding River: The Journey of Contemporary Art in Vietnam" is an exhibit of astounding beauty and depth. While Vietnamese expats are angry that the Bowers refused to censor two paintings that the anti-Communists call Commie propaganda, what goes underreported is that the show is delicately beautiful. With a steady mix of pale, ethereal silk paintings that could float away on a whisper, French colonial portraits like demure Gauguins, blocky abstractions as heavy as buffalo, and '90s-style sepia monsters, the exhibit paints a broad swath of Vietnamese contemporary art. And it is remarkably like our own.

Vietnamese painting was indelibly influenced by the French, who colonized half of Asia and then imprinted their own snail-eatin' ways on it; the first art academy was run by the French, though ornate Vietnamese sculpture and crafts have been sought-after for centuries. Art of the '50s consisted of brightly colored, thickly outlined, pleasant scenes—just like in Paris. Bui Xuan Phai's Hanoi Streetcould be one of Czanne's verdant, blocky landscapes if not for the color scheme. Nguyen Trong Kiem's fauvist Children could be a tender Gauguin. Ngo Chinh's undated Thuong Tin Gatecould be a Kandinsky, if Kandinsky abstracted pagodas awash in Picasso blue.

There are few works from the war years, though Dang Thi Khue's 1976 Homecoming is in the ballpark. In that one, a soldier arrives home on crutches. Beautiful broad faces surround him, laughing and smiling wide. Is this what the protesters call "Commie propaganda"? That an extended family is happy to see its son? Perhaps they should spit on him instead.

The rest of the exhibit is pretty much given over to the '90s, though there are exceptions, like Ley Huy Tiep's fun, hippy-dippy Creation,with the artist contemplating art's navel, from 1978.

And guess what? Vietnamese artists of the '90s can't paint either! Just like ours! Buu Chi's Blind Man With Monochordis an exception: his ferocious subject is painted scantily, with just a few broad, angry strokes, but the skill is obvious and the lines sure. The rest of the exhibit feels as if the artists took painting lessons from Basquiat. Except for the ones painting fish that look like Harings.

But what would normally be one ill-drawn squiggle too many is fun here: the similarity to '80s and '90s American painters is astounding, even with the complete absence of cultural exchange. Luckily for me, the curators didn't include rusted assemblages.

"A Winding River: The Journey of Contemporary Art in Vietnam" at Bowers Museum Of Cultural Art, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 567-3600. Open Tues.-Sun., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Through Sept. 30. $4-$8.


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