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Art Critic : The Village Dreamer by Libby Zinman

Not a trained art critic, I am a seasoned lover of beauty. And in Tran Dinh Khuong’s magnificent oils on lacquer, I found a perfect rationale for a lifetime of aesthetic pursuit.

Viewing this exhibit is to repeat Alice’s trip through her looking glass into a world of the author’s imagination. In Carroll’s novel, “ The Adventure of Alice in Wonderland,” the young protagonist wanders through a milieu circumscribed by unique characters, some frightening, some helpful, some bizarre. But the essence of her experience is to escape from the real world into one that is more intriguing, at least to the author himself.

Like Alice, we find in Tran Dinh Khuong’s work a distinctive world, this time a microcosm of Vietnamese village life in which young people fish and wash dishes in the river, children play games, buffaloes romp, and rain falls softly on forest leaves. Using the artist’s imagination and artistic gifts as our guide, we can travel with Tran Dinh Khuong to the village and rediscover the joy of childhood in which every experience is new, fresh and exciting.

There have been other villages in literature and art, but unlike Alice’s “village” of strange characters, the Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts and smiling Cheshire Cat, or artist Marc Chagall’s Russian village where bridal couples float in the air and clowns and roosters perform for the viewer, Khuong’s village is calm, peaceful and idyllic. Its milieu is bucolic and its colors, reflecting the green of the fields and the deep blue of the rivers invite the viewer to escape with the artist into a fantasia of pleasure and oblivion the secret world of the child where responsibilities are few and enchantment reigns.

Tran Dinh Khuong accomplishes this feat through his artist skills, the delicate and complex technique of applying oil on lacquer, and his capacity to summon the past and give it a universal vision that resonates with every person who has ever experienced the joy – even if momentary – of childhood.

However, Tran Dinh Khuong knows from adult experience that the world of the child is temporary and fleeting. In the exhibit’s painting of a buffalo and a child with a kite, certain to become one day a masterpiece of technique and imagination, the artist renders the soul of the Vietnamese in a single stroke. In the painting, Khuong splits the personality of the Vietnamese people in tow: in the upper left hand corner, the gentle child, the village dreamer, twister in the tail of his kite, whirling upside down in the sky-or is it the universe? – gifted, artistic, playful, without a care. And in the lower right hand corner of the painting, a buffalo, ancient symbol of labor and friendship, the usually affectionate buffalo now an angry one, his eye staring fiercely at you, the viewer, communicating his fury, his powerful bulk suggesting conquest over all his enemies.

The artist has made a statement that transports us far from the peaceful village of fishing children, endless games and serenity. He draws upon history to tell us that this world reflects only one half of the Vietnamese soul, one half of its experience. Throughout history, at war and under occupation, the Vietnamese have also had to defend with their blood an extraordinary universe, grounded in maternal love and lullabies, extended family and loyal friends, gentle buffaloes, songs and games.

The artist is mindful that to present only the one side of the Vietnamese personality it to deprive it of its depth and strength, its tragedy and its heroism, its greatness and its sorrow.

Like Lewis Carroll and Marc Chagall before him, Tran Dinh Khuong’s artistic vision is not one dimensional. His paintings span the stages of life, the nature of work and relationships, peace and war. He is an urban painter, preoccupied with the pastoral tradition of his youth, perhaps, as he says, “…from my visits to the countryside with my father and brother when I was six…”

His preoccupied is our gift and Khuong found his medium to express it in lacquer, “…something that reflects the Vietnamese soul and identity, the depth and intricacies of Vietnamese people, I want to master it at any cost.”

Born in 1972 and graduated from the Hanoi Institute of Industrial Arts in 1995, Tran Dinh Khuong quickly emerged as an artist to watch in the Asian Art Scene. He has exhibited widely and his works grace collections across continents.
He is only 34 years of age.

Libby Zinman – Schwartz

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