Ho Chi Minh City

Truong Tan, Ablaze, 2019, mixed media on wood, 31 1⁄2 × 47 1⁄4".

Truong Tan, Ablaze, 2019, mixed media on wood, 31 1⁄2 × 47 1⁄4".

Truong Tan

Truong Tan, known as Vietnam’s “first openly gay artist,” has also been called an enfant terrible. No stranger to controversy, he has had his fair share of run-ins with Vietnam’s cultural censors, having made works addressing thorny issues such as male homosexuality and police corruption. It was with no small surprise, then, that I encountered this latest exhibition: a presentation of lacquer paintings portraying planets suspended in galaxies. Accompanying these twenty-four works were two large-scale fabric installations and a vitrine displaying the tools and materials used in his working process.

Truong Tan has worked with lacquer for more than twenty years, but his earlier works in the medium are decidedly more visceral in their imagery, often depicting erect phalluses and his signature imagery of naked male bodies in distressing, sexual, or abject scenarios. By comparison, these lacquer-laden universes, which he began making in 2017, are starkly anodyne, even soothing. Truong Tan’s distant cosmos seems firmly detached from our earth’s petty contingencies. Gently embellished in silver, the Milky Way in Nostalgia (all works 2019) epitomizes this body of work’s pensive bent. Ablaze pictures a planet that seems to be wasting away, its magnificent mass elegiacally disintegrating into loose, glittery dust.

Subject matter notwithstanding, Truong Tan’s revitalized approach to this distinctively Vietnamese art form is radical. Holding steady to certain prescriptions—the use of a wooden support, for instance, and the meticulous layering of lacquer coats (up to twenty-five per panel)—the artist brandishes his renegade flair by reinventing other aspects of the tradition. The surfaces of traditional lacquer paintings are usually not uniform. Accumulated coats of lacquer, inlays of materials such as shells, and additions of mineral powders (which add sparkle to the material’s otherwise somber hues) create a mélange of tones and textures that attest to an artist’s skill and prescience. In Truong Tan’s works, by contrast, every layer has been sanded and polished to an atypically glossy sheen in quest of a seamless, photorealistic finish. Although one could find a few passages with matte or textured surfaces—such as in Gravity, where silk threads incorporated into lacquer simulate a planet’s rocky terrain—the majority of the panels are slick, smooth, and shiny, and proudly reflected the gallery’s lighting. To achieve this effect, Truong Tan polished each panel over prolonged periods, in some cases for as long as two years. With this quiet labor, he buffed down the prickly, sensationalist disposition that had been foisted upon his persona over the years.

Like other artists who dare to address their personal identities in their work, Truong Tan has often been unfairly slighted, his artistry ignored in favor of a focus on his sociopolitical beliefs. While the latter may supplement contextual information about an artist’s practice, there remains a need to address the nuances and entanglements of social life in the visual. Blanket statements about activism or resistance often obscure and neuter aesthetic possibilities. It is indicative of Truong Tan’s position that, when asked why he decided to paint something as universal as planets, he replied that it is because the individual cannot be seen.