Sunday, August 9, 2009
ART & ABOUT IN VIENTIANE
KRIS HEMENSLEY & CATHERINE O'BRIEN
THE "ART & ABOUT VIENTIANE" INTERVIEW
[Ever since Cathy mentioned Mr Patrick [Dr Patrick Gay] to me --in 2003? --I've created an image of him in my mind. Sometimes he's a French Rumpole, his equivalent of a Pommeroy's --anise?-- perpetually on the go! Or he's a Somerset Maugham or one of his characters, or even Malcolm Lowry's vice-consul from Under the Volcano --a mature-aged man who loved Laos as he'd been educated to do by French colonialism though not at all a lording-it colonial. Indeed, I imagined his Frenchness had given him the character to recognize the necessity of a local painting which could take its place in at least Asia's contemporary art, a contemporary art which was recognizably Lao though no longer traditional, all of which is probably true. I was crestfallen, however, when Catherine described him as younger & slimmer & hipper than me --no tropical white jacket & pants or cigarette in holder & et cetera! Even so, perhaps he nurtures such a character within his jeans & t-shirt facade?]
Kris Hemensley : At last I've been to Mr Patrick's Treasures of Asia Gallery [on Setthathiroth Street], except that he's not there!
Catherine O'Brien : He's in Singapore, & he does seem to go there at this time of year...
KH : Yes, but didn't you say you noticed a different director's name on his card?
COB : No, it was when I entered the gallery I felt it wasn't a gallery anymore. It was an art shop. There were Hmong textile bags readily available at the market, containing buffalo horns or maybe goat, and the girls hammering the frames on the floor seemed incongruous. Another thing : I noticed piles of Vietnamese art (water-colours, tourist paintings), not that there's anything wrong with Vietnamese paintings but a whole pile of them, also effigies you can see at the Talet Sau market... and then, most surprising of all were the dolls--
KH : The faceless dolls?
COB : No, they're not faceless... they're made by a Hmong lady at the Night Market in Luang Prabang... my friend Daniel, who's now returned to Canada, first told me about them, and then Kris Coad & I collected them...
KH : Don't I recall you describing them as magical or shamanic?
COB : They're spirit dolls, some had two heads-- They're a folk art coming from somewhere we didn't know, nothing like the stuffed animals also sold there-- These were naively made, badly stitched-- And I was surprised to see them in the gallery because obviously someone thought they were sellable in a gallery context--
KH : Do you think Mr Patrick...?
COB : I don't think so... Previously he's promoted a certain kind of Lao artist & the occasional passing Frenchmen...
KH : Do you think Patrick isn't the director anymore?
COB : Well, why is another name [Phimphone Vilaydeth] on the card? ...Patrick was the first one to tell me of a French artist, Marc Leguay, who lived in Lao & probably Thailand as well -- The Lao artists copied his style --red flowers from the flame tree, beautiful Lao women bringing offerings to the monks... It was a style from which the young artists got the idea of painting traditional subjects. But now it's what we saw there today--
KH : The Delaunay, Cubist kind of thing --which I quite liked--
COB : Patrick also showed the older painters --the academy professors --art only came from the art schools.
KH : Do you think an era has ended?
COB : I think Patrick was the first person to have the idea of bringing all the Lao artists together in a gallery. Some of these artists were hanging at the gallery today.
[The paintings to catch my eye were, firstly, Cubist style, in which the figures rise from ornate surfaces or are one element of the ornate swirl, &, secondly, the depictions of monks. I suppose the latter puts me right in the post-colonialist gunsight! The exoticised subject, integral to our orientalist repertoire, they'd jeer. Except that the monks are at the heart of these societies too. The monks chanting & eyes-closed praying --simultaneously realistic & idealized as the monks are in the everyday. Another painting, same artist, has them in rows --a phalanx of backs of heads, each figure emerging from the golden brown --the geometry, perhaps, met before their identities.
The series of monks juxtaposed with Buddhas is obviously devotional, symbolic, but given a certain sensibility or ideology not fanciful. (I remember my first time in Glastonbury, UK encountering numerous paintings & prints of Arthurian & British mythological subjects, sometimes in the recognizable Somerset or Cornwall landscape, and I would also have ignored it all as kitsch except for the emotional, aesthetic & cultural investment I'd latterly made in those subjects & landscapes!)
A third category were the flower paintings --not botanical studies, though they owned that genre's veracity, but floral tributes (as it were), something of the French Impressionists &, of course, Georgia O'Keeffe.
Thinking then, after Catherine's reminder of the existence of censorship in Laos, it's probable that such subject-matter is also opportunity for painting pure & (not so) simple. The genre's main exponent, at least in Mr Patrick's stable, is Keomany, the painter Cathy's bought, and it doesn't detract from our proposition that her current work is a series of children studies. Perhaps it's similar to Chinese folk or genre painting, although the examples I have in mind, from the 1970s, had that heroic aura in which stylization cancels personality & transparency is the stamp of official approval. And its naivety reflects the affection for the subject & precedes its expression.
Where Modernism isnt the gauge it doesnt mean there isnt a gauge. But even when there are modernist forays, genre resumes its traditional or pre-modernist importance --that is to say, painting is propelled by the subject into whatever expression & modernism isnt wholly characterised by the dominant expressionism or abstraction.]
KH : Reading La Peinture Contemporaine Lao (2007), I see that art & artists runs in families?
COB : Yes --for example, P. Noy's husband is an artist --specialises in ethnic women --Isabelle showed Noy at L'etranger in Luang Prabang... Vilay, untrained, amateur, P. Noy's brother-in-law... I met him at the Art School exhibition --I leant him a book on S.E. Asian art. He came round to get it --I was going to buy one of his paintings --one of his first... But I returned to Australia, didn't get my book back, haven't seen him around since, though his paintings are at Patrick's... Patrick used to buy most of the paintings --
KH : Is Mr Patrick's interest aesthetic? commercial? personal?
COB : He told me he did his PHD on Lao history. He helped set up an ethnic museum in Phonsilly-- I told him that's funny --every time I've been there it's shut! He bought a huge number of historical photographs of Asian people & places including many Lao subjects ["The gallery also owns the most important collections of iconographic reproductions from Asian countries dating from 1860 to 1940...", p14, La Peinture...] -- he obviously has an interest in preserving the culture-- He's more than a collector--
KH : Where was the gallery to which you took me where your Keomany painting is still waiting for you?
COB : Five Arts Gallery in central Vientiane--
KH : It was funny when the guy, one of the artists looking after the gallery that night, didn't understand that you'd already purchased her Golden Lotus! It was wrapped in newspaper, upstairs, --you showed him & apologised for not yet picking it up & he was saying that of course you could buy it if you wanted to! What attracts you to her flower paintings? (I note that, according to La Peinture..., her husband, Bounepol, a graduate from the same Faculty of Fine arts in Vientiane, similarly paints in the 'hyperreal' manner --the monograph describes them as forming 'a couple in the same artistic domain' & Keomany's style as 'vegetal hyperrealism'...
COB : I first saw them at the International Women's Day Exhibition in Vientiane, in 2006 --a big show of women artists... Looking at such an exhibition you have to set aside all your modern art preconceptions but you're hoping to find something really fine --It's an old building, unfortunately it's going to be turfed --It's a building with a history --Behind a curtain there's a painting by Leguay, I think --At the counter, a group of women, smiling, happy for anyone to come --None of the shows I've attended there get much attention --You know these women are the artists --Looking around I saw very large canvases of flowers --the dok chompa (frangipani), the national flower --huge close-ups, glistening with dew --sensual -- They reminded me of Georgia O'Keeffe but I doubt these artists have encountered Georgia O'Keeffe --I'm not a lover of flower paintings per se --It's the form, the colour I like --The painting I've bought is quite different to the others --the Golden Lotus --Because it's set on a black background it has an abstract quality --At Five Arts, next to her new children studies, were one or two brown flowers studies --like seaweed --which are even less naturalistic...
A lot of the pictures in La Peinture Contemporaine Lao belong to Patrick. They form the basis of the collection represented there. Perhaps because they were reflecting what I'd been seeing in Laos, I responded to pictures of women going to the temple --for example, by Anoulom, one in particular, Women Going to the Temple in Phon Si (which means 'colour mountain') --and one by Chandavong, Procession in Luang Prabang. Anoulom's painting has the Marc Leguay red flower motif in the corner; you can see the influence through Leguay of Gauguin --the romantic figures of women, bathed in soft light...
I like Monkan... I talked to him one day... the thickness of the paint, the colours...
KH : Yes, they're both stylized & fluid, energetic --
COB : Mick Saylom perhaps hasn't found his style yet --a young painter --I'm not into his string paintings --he traces the figures with string, perhaps jute, builds the painting around the outlines --The catalogue calls it 'vegetal string'...
KH : They're keen on the 'vegetal' aren't they?!
COB : I liked Chandavong's blue hues --in particular one portrait, a face, at Patrick's gallery for ages but surprisingly not in the book --I feel very affectionate to the group of paintings & painters I saw at Patrick's gallery which coincided with my first years in Vientiane --I'd also seen them at the National Faculty of Fine Arts collection --I got to meet some of the painters & to match the paintings with the painters-- I could then identify them in cafes or hotel foyers, knew who they were by, where they came from --For example, once at the Spirit House, the hotel restaurant on the road by the Mekong, as I was walking home by the river, I saw an exhibition of paintings by Monkham --So I recognized that period --There's a particular Lao cafe which had somehow collected paintings --At the Lan Xane Hotel there is a collection of an earlier period of paintings --Those two places have very interesting collections --Now, when you see the Five Arts paintings at the "M" Gallery, and the perhaps changed scene at Patrick's gallery, there's a sense of new artists, different styles --There seems to be an increasing romanticism --temples, Buddhas, gods, stars!
KH : Are they creating a mythology?
COB : I don't know --maybe --and maybe they know those subjects will sell!
KH : So the door is well & truly opening but onto what one's not really sure...?
COB : Yes!
One painter, Mr Vithaya came round to see me --His brother is Anousa & his sister-in-law is P. Noy --He's self-taught --I saw these wonderful paintings of monks carrying umbrellas shaped like discs --You could say comics style painting --very unusual perspectives--
KH : Like a camera, filmic?
COB : Yes --and he makes the characters from geometrical shapes --for example, seven monks, a parabola --I almost bought it --lost his phone number. As a naive painter with an unusual perspective on traditional subjects, pethaps he's one of the new wave...
The Maison de la Culture exhibition was a big one --I saw the group of painters I'd discovered at Mr Patrick's in a larger context of contemporary Lao art --Their themes were similar but they had their own styles --as if they were a development from the larger, traditional painting...
Mr Vithaya also made the Dreaming About a Departure ('07) --
KH : That painting struck me looking at the book --It had that Casper David Friedrich feel of the individual facing the Absolute --
COB : I was surprised, but then not because he's such a thoughtful person --I had an interesting conversation with him about Lao cosmology, so why should I be surprised by this strongly symbolist picture? The figure has left his thongs under an umbrella, so I imagine he is still beneath the umbrella while his dreaming self walks into the clouds carrying his tong pai (his travelling bag)...
[The traveller's experience of censorship is muted by the general absence of signs of authority. One's ready to observe the local requirement for modesty in dress & the sanction upon affectionate or sexual expression, not because of statute but in accordance with the gentle nature & rhythm of that society. Although the term 'open door' doesn't appear in the pages of the widely distributed La Peinture Contemporaine Lao, it occurs to me that the art represented there is its official confirmation. Thus the importance of Mr Patrick's gallery & vision.
Coincident with or perhaps part & parcel of the phenomenon is the cultural activity of the foreigners in Laos. I'm intrigued by the potential for interaction, on the level of both non-Lao representation of indigenous subjects and of the continuation in Laos of the work of foreign artists. Parallel reality, world within world, collaboration. The foreign art isn't only European (French of course, German, British etc.) or North American but also Asian (Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese etc.) &, dare one say, Australian.]
COB : There's a Lao artist who has his own 'shop', full of paintings & drawings --he told me he'd trained in China. What I liked were large charcoal drawings of figures influenced, I think, by Chinese calligraphy. His other work was of Lao subjects.
KH : Once again this reminds us that influence isn't always the big, bad West. For Laos there's also the not insignificant links with the old Communist states of Europe & current Communist regimes in Asia.
COB : Yes... earlier on there was the influence of Vietnam --Lao artists studying there --but not so much now, although there is still official cultural exchange between Laos & Vietnam. In Luang Prabang there's probably more inter-relationship & exposure than in Vientiane...
The Quiet of the Land exhibition, curated by France Moran --which included film by British-Lao installation artist, textiles by French-Lao & European anthropologist, painting, photography, very significant installation work (e.g., Anne Hamilton) --has to have been tremendously significant...
COB : I have to say I'm not involved in the wider circle of Lao art & artists... What I'm interested in is the Vientiane art as I came across it in town --in galleries but also in shops & cafes (cafes which show certain periods of painting)... There is a gallery, relatively recently opened, Maison de la Culture de Ban Naxai, like an 'approved' gallery, whose opening I attended, which shows the work of many of the artists I've seen at Mr Patrick's gallery. He actually gave me the invitation! I didn't see him there... I looked at all the work & saw the artists sitting together at a table, but I didn't stay...