Thu Van Tran, Penetrable—Rainforest #2, 2019, pigment and rubber on canvas, 70 7⁄8 × 59 1⁄8". From the series “Penetrable Rainforest,” 2018–.

Thu Van Tran, Penetrable—Rainforest #2, 2019, pigment and rubber on canvas, 70 7⁄8 × 59 1⁄8". From the series “Penetrable Rainforest,” 2018–.

Thu Van Tran

Almine Rech Gallery | Paris

In the 1960s, the US military launched a program called Operation Trail Dust. A tactical maneuver against the Vietcong, the effort involved the destruction of South Vietnamese forests and farmland using so-called rainbow herbicides: Agents Green, Pink, Purple, Blue, White, and, most famously, Orange, manufactured by Monsanto and Dow Chemical. “These rainbow colors,” Thu Van Tran explains, “and the semantic treachery of their nomenclature have stained my mental space.” For her drawings from the 2012– series “Rainbow Herbicides”—four of which (all works cited, 2019) appeared in her recent show “Trail Dust”—the artist sprayed quick dashes of the six bright above named hues over delicate large-scale pencil drawings of volcanic ash clouds. These colors—which the artist has previously layered in fresco—also crop up in the watercolor-on-paper series, “Colors of Grey,” 2012–. The French word feuille names both leaf and page or sheet of paper, and Tran evokes the linguistic (and material) proximity by applying the rainbow pigments in varying orders and opacities. Tran deems these works complete only after the application of hues has achieved a bruised and ashen gray evoking the deadly process of defoliation.

For the five-part “Novel Without a Title,” 2017–, the artist collected banana leaves from a colonial-era greenhouse in Auteuil, one of Paris’s well-heeled western quarters, and rubber-tree leaves from Vietnam. Next, she created bronze casts of the leaves using the lost-wax process, exhibiting the results on the floor, fallen and fixed, some shining yellow or green under a combination of oxides. The title echoes that of Duong Thu Huong’s Novel Without a Name (1991), a dissident narrative that follows three friends as they navigate the disorienting ideological jungles of the Vietnam War.

The choice to include rubber-tree leaves is a pointed one. Introduced to Vietnam by French colonialists, rubber trees thrived in the plantations that expanded in the country’s southern highlands. “Rubber was initially a sculptural material,” Tran explains, “and I wanted it to become a material for painting.” She succeeds in her “Penetrable—Rainforest” series, 2018–. For the three such works here, she made bright, leaflike forms out of pigmented rubber. The paintings are translucent and visibly plush, glistening like skin, particularly on silk-screen mesh. Although Tran has said she had the sensorial effects of Jesús Rafael Soto’s “P<span class=“s1”>é</span>n<span class=“s1”>é</span>trable,” 1967–2004, in mind, Hélio Oiticica’s similarly titled series, from 1961–80, seems a closer echo here. Just as Tran’s compositions address Vietnam’s history of colonization, industrialization, and war, the messy permeability of the Brazilian artist’s brightly colored architectures confronts the political and artistic hegemony that reigned at the height of the twentieth century.

Built in dedication to Confucius almost a millennium ago and serving for centuries as Vietnam’s Imperial Academy, Hanoi’s Temple of Literature is home to eighty-two massive stone turtles, holy symbols of longevity and wisdom. Each supports a stela engraved with names of the academy’s graduates, inscriptions that have, over time, worn away and are now mostly indecipherable. Tran’s At a Tortoise’s Pace, which comprises an army of ceramic turtles, pays tribute to those sculptures. Here again, the feuille is central, as a letter-size sheet of ceramic “paper” balances on each creature’s shell. In order to make these sheets, Tran dipped paper into a ceramic preparation; in the firing process, the sheet burned up, just as the exotic tree leaves made way for the bronze of her sculptures. In Tran’s work, the blank page and the fallen leaf bear witness to the destruction of history and of nature, but through the method of appropriation the artist suggests the possibility for revision and creation. “For me they are white pages to write again,” she says, “the first page of a book to be written.”