San Francisco

Toi Hoang

San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery

Toi Hoang was born near Saigon in 1962 and fled Vietnam at age 13, just as the city fell and the last of the U.S. troops evacuated. Hoang set out in a small boat on the South China sea with his mother and brother (his father and sister had died in the war) and eventually reached the Philippines, where they were shuffled from one refugee camp to another. They finally settled in San Jose, California, and, some years later, Hoang began the “Stretcher” series, a remarkable group of sculptural paintings that manages to evoke the gruesome aftermath of a collapsed tunnel system and the psychic aftermath of war, without reducing either to a literal “subject.”

Each piece in the series begins as a wooden frame leaning upright against the wall with canvas stretched over it to suggest a stretcher of the sort used to transport the wounded. In the earlier pieces, the canvas is cut, torn, scored, sewn, and collaged to form intricately textured grounds. Tree roots and branches are bandaged and bound to the frames like severed limbs—scorched and twisted organic forms straining piteously against their Beuysian bonds. Everything is slathered and gobbed with earth-brown and black paint and seems to have been pulled up from underground. Red swirls and splashes appear over sutured cuts in the canvas, and artificial flowers sprout from clotted wounds. In these early infernal passages, it is the wounds that begin to evolve into painterly forms.

On the seventh stretcher, a root the diameter of a human leg curves off to the side to open up the painting’s surface, which begins to be filled with hieroglyphic marks and Cy Twombly esque scrawls scratched into the paint. From the marks that resemble writing (in English and Vietnamese), only a few names are actually legible: “Viet Nam,” “Thailand.” One of the illegible words emits a cartoon bubble that contains yet more illegible words signifiers begetting signifiers, tempting signifieds. One canvas carries a series of scrawls that are more like drawings or pictographs, always just out of representational range. A mushroom cloud could be emerging from a cross; an inscribed line might be one side of a human figure, with breasts in place of a penis; a map suggests a face with bandaged eyes and sutured mouth. The pictographs appear to be emerging from inside the painting, rather than applied to the surface.

One stretcher lies down on legs to become a cot, with a river of blood running through it and some sort of organ suspended on a string. Another disgorges a rib cage, an ammo pouch, and a camouflage pocket overflowing with gore. The twelfth stretcher hangs folded from the rafters, like a raptor, a cocoon, or a corpse.

Hoang’s mnemonic expression of horror is precisely visceral, but from the exhumed bodies come autochthonous gestures of linguistic articulation—a wounded, grasping language, reaching toward a new embodiment. The effect is wildly exhilarating. It’s like watching someone reinvent painting from the ground up (bodies of history).

David Levi Strauss