Premiere: Quiet Thoughts, the Reception
On October 4, 2013, Art Space Vincennes hosted a reception for its premiere exhibition, Quiet Thoughts, Paintings by Trang T. Lê. Over 107 people attended the event. The exhibition is the first of a series that will have the ecumenical theme Spiritual Journeys. Below is a photograph of ASV owners, Andrew Jendrzejewski and Amy DeLap with Ms. Lê.
I discovered this artist by responding to an open call for suggestions about her website. Her work immediately seemed genuine and high quality. I showed the work to Amy, who agreed that we should ask her to show. In the invitation I explained that this exhibition would be our premiere exhibition and the first in a series called Spiritual Journeys. She responded with the idea that she wanted to help us with our aspirations to develop positive community involvement in contemporary art. This began months of planning and discussions about art, the exhibition, our backgrounds and the motivations behind her work. Slowly, we discovered that she was born several months after I left Vietnam. I left Vietnam via Cam Ranh Bay air base, which is next to Nha Trang, her birth place. Her father was a Vietnamese officer working at the base. These realizations drew tears from us both and created a special bond.
After I left, the war continued another 5 years. Ms. Lê recalls from early childhood memories of explosions, buildings collapsing, and people screaming. As Nha Trang fell to the communists her family fled to Saigon. Because her father was an officer, though they hid in a hotel, they became suspect by informers and soon two men knocked on the door and took her father away to a POW camp. After five years of terrible treatment, the communists released him, but there was no future for him and his family in Vietnam. Teachers even treated Trang poorly no matter how hard she tried to perform. They built a small boat and managed to acquire an outboard motor and set out into the sea. Lê remembers seeing no land as they fought the waves to escape. At night she saw only the stars and Lê imagined in them a place for safety. Eventually, the motor failed and they drifted, and, after some time, a boat came to save them and took them to Thailand. They lived in a refugee camp there for a year before being accepted for asylum safely in the United States.
For Lê a sense of safety lasted into adulthood and until Nine-Eleven. Nine-Eleven and the subsequent Iraq War shook her world; childhood memories began to haunt her. She strove to find a way to heal. Inspired by the leaves of a tree shimmering in a breeze and the morning sky she began a meditative series, using vague references to nature and repetitive circles made with impasto spirals of paint. The process of this repetition functioned much like the recitation of a mantra or litany, calming her spirit. The exhibition Quiet Thoughts begins with these “circle paintings” in a room designated by the artist as Morning.
The paintings are all keyed very lightly and oriented toward the sky, like the light of a fresh new day. At first the paintings seem simply white, but given time the viewer begins to see increasingly more and discovers clouds and in the clouds mysterious circles of white paint. Though the paintings are very light (and difficult to photograph accurately) the slight variations of color and paint thickness create subtle nuances of difference, that we can read as “quiet”. Lê often meditates in the morning to ground herself before she faces a new day.
Memories of Nature
In the hallway, the painting Chrysanthemum introduces the next room entitled Memories of Nature. Lê began to approach the circles differently, linking them together to form lines, like beaded chains. These lines begin to describe forms found in nature, like the petals of the flower in Chrysanthemum. In this painting the circles forming lines are painted thickly on a field of what looks like raw linen, though we are told that it is sized with either a clear gesso or rabbit skin glue, a very old traditional way to size or seal canvas or linen, before painting.
Also featured in the hallway is a painting filled with the texture of many circle-spirals that fill the canvas with a field of yellows. She calls it Spring, and she has kindly donated the painting to ASV for a silent auction in support of our program. Details will come in another blog soon. To bid, simply email ASV the proposed amount at andy.jendrzejewski at gmail.com. The reserve is $500 for a $6000 painting.
In the room Memories of Nature we find several other paintings of the series, one of them being Ocean Waves. Using a beautiful range of cool blues the circles again link into lines suggesting the contour edges of endless waves against a warm field of raw linen. One cannot help recalling Lê’s escape at sea, when still a child.
Several years after the Iraq war began, Lê asked herself why she did not seem to care about the soldiers and civilians who died every day in Iraq. She began to see daily reports on the news of our military and began to research who they were and how they died. She decided to create a log of those who died, with their basic information and their picture. She continued this for about five years until the war ended. The journals are on display at the 111978 room.
Also in the room is a video that explains the process of making a 4 X 84 foot long painting installation titled 111 978, representing each life lost with a circle-spiral. The video is a five minute piece that is looped to play every two minutes. On the far wall is a 4 X 8 foot painting on canvas that is panel two of the seven panels created to complete the painting at the end of the war. On another wall there is a photograph of the entire piece.
Even separated from the other panels this painting evokes a sense of eternity with the circles painted in a variety of blues against a black space suggesting the night sky that was filled with stars that Lê saw from the boat–a sky full of souls hopefully at restful peace.
Lê’s process of painting these works became both passionate and meditative. It also became difficult, thinking about the death of these people she read about. She waned in her persistence at times, but found the strength to go on, continuing until the war officially ended and Americans withdrew. One visitor suggested that this was the most powerful and appropriate statement about war he has every seen.
1. First Photograph: Darlene D. DeAngelo, curator; 2. All other photographs: Haviland Cardinal, student