Ancient art, modern times A Vietnamese artist brings lacquer painting to Towson

November 29, 1991|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Evening Sun Staff

IN A GRAY turtleneck, sharp jade blazer and black corduroys, Minh Van Nguyen looks as mod as mod can get, reminiscent of Andy Warhol.

But while the artist Warhol pulled ideas from pop culture, this 57-year-old Vietnamese artist culls from places and scenes of his native country, of mountainside, fishermen and flowers.

Nguyen's medium is lacquer. It's an art form that dates back to as early as the 12th century B.C. when Chinese artisans applied sap from trees as decorative sealants on wood objects. As is done today, they applied to wood panels and surfaces layers upon layers of lacquer -- sometimes up to 120 times. Each coat has to be babied and dried in a humid atmosphere before another one is put on. The procedure can take up to six months.

At the Asian Art Center at Towson State University, where about 30 of his paintings are on display until Dec. 7, he said his hope is that people who see his work will appreciate the beauty and labor of lacquer art, an uncommon art form in America.

"I just want them to come in and see something they haven't seen before," he said. "I just want them to enjoy it."

With the help of his sister and brother-in-law, an American economic aide who worked at the U.S. Embassy, Nguyen and his wife and seven children escaped war-torn Vietnam in 1975, one week before Saigon fell.

While rebuilding his life in America, he contacted old friends and clients in hopes of continuing his art career. He opened an art gallery at Canal Square in Georgetown a year ago, and he's been exhibiting his artwork in New York, San Francisco and in France since he came to America.

While he paints and draws pastoral scenes, he also dabbles in the abstract. Bold black strokes on gray lacquer make up his "Trees" print, while his picture of a brown square block with a red line on top asks, "Is it a Flower?" And although he sketches countryside, his pictures of everyday things give him more pleasure.

"I used details and scenes from the past, but these," he said, pointing to pictures of flowers, quails and canards, "I like because they reflect the emotions I put into them. And these emotions, they are conveyed to the people."

His lacquered artwork awes by its beauty and rareness.

"We were entranced by his work," said Robert Grenell, who was strolling in Georgetown with his wife when they stumbled upon Nguyen's gallery. "It was unusual, rare, very special. He has taken a technique that is over 2000 years old and has produced with it, not classical Oriental painting, but painting that belongs with Western expressionist and abstract art."

Nguyen, who now lives in Springfield, Va., finished his training in 1958 at the National School of Superior Fine Arts in Saigon. He also went to the Industrial Art and Research Institute in Japan in 1961. He went back to Vietnam and, with the government's help, he set up an art school to teach poor kids the trade.

Nguyen's work is exhibited across the country and in France at government buildings and banks. He's also shown at the 1964 and 1967 International Fair.

A teen-age Nguyen would have pursued other professions, but his father died and his family was left with little money. So he ended up with a scholarship to study art. "No one would go to art school," said Nguyen. "The government had to bribe people to go with scholarship money."

The Asian Arts Center in the Fine Arts Building at Towson State University is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, from 2 to 4:30 p.m. Saturdays. Call 830-2807.

(Editor's note: The artist and the writer are not related.)

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