Culture / Art Republik

Eighty years of sơn mài: Vietnamese artist gets double-billing in Singapore

Artists Nguyễn Gia Trí and Phi Phi Oanh show Singapore the art behind Vietnamese lacquer painting, from the modern to the contemporary

Jul 07, 2017 | By Ilyda Chua

Phi Phi Oanh, ‘Aquarium 1’, 2007. Image courtesy FOST Gallery

Vietnamese lacquer painting, also known as sơn mài, returns to Singapore with exhibitions featuring artists Nguyễn Gia Trí and Phi Phi Oanh.

The unique history of sơn mài originated in the 1920s. While lacquer is widely used in Asia as a finish, pioneers of the technique, including Nguyễn Gia Trí, first experimented with lacquer in an attempt to emulate the qualities of modern oil paintings that they were first exposed to during the French colonial period.

“The result is a very interesting art form that combines the special material qualities of lacquer with the expressive potential of painting,” says Phoebe Scott, curator of the National Gallery Singapore’s ongoing exhibition, ‘Radiant Material’, featuring works by both Nguyễn Gia Trí and Phi Phi Oanh.

Ngyuen Gia Tri, ‘Les Fées’, 1936. Image courtesy National Gallery Singapore

The unique properties of lacquer allows for the layers of lacquer to be built up and consequently sanded down, Phoebe explains. This causes the under-layers to be visible and exposes the nuanced effects of texture and colour that gives lacquer painting its signature luminous, ethereal qualities.

Despite being separated by over eight decades, both artists are connected by a similar quality: experimentation. While Nguyễn Gia Trí’s work with the material helped pioneer lacquer painting as a technique, Phi Phi Oanh continues to push its boundaries. In ‘Pro Se’ (2017), she takes inspiration from the digital world, with elements of the iPad, personal photostreams, and Google Earth searches visible in her work; in her solo exhibition at FOST Gallery, ‘Make Shift’, she further explores the technical aspects of the medium.

Phi Phi Oanh, ‘Pro Se’, 2017. Image courtesy National Gallery Singapore

“As someone who is ethnically Vietnamese but who was born and grew up in the United States, Phi Phi Oanh brings a fresh perspective to a traditional medium like Vietnamese lacquer,” says FOST founder, Stephanie Fong. “She approaches this medium experimentally, treating it as an area of artistic research to explore the critical possibilities of lacquer as painting – using unconventional substrates for lacquer like glass, metal and fibreglass or Kevlar composite, allowing her to work with different formats and widening the conceptual approach.”

‘Radiant Materials’, featuring works by both artists, including a special commission by Phi Phi Oanh, will show at National Gallery Singapore until 3 September. ‘Make Shift’, a solo exhibition by Phi Phi Oanh, will run at FOST Gallery until 27 August.

ilyda chua

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