"...The Rhus succedanea tree is indigenous to Northern Vietnam, and its sap provides the raw material for lacquer. Historically, the local lacquer paint was used both for prosaic purposes  as a means of preserving wooden objects and furnishings from humidity and damage  as well as for creating special decorative or religious objects, sometimes enhanced with gilding or mother-of-pearl inlay. In the 1930s, following the founding of the École des Beaux-Arts d'Indochine by the French colonial government, Vietnamese artists began to experiment with using lacquer painted onto flat wooden panels as a means of modern, creative expression. One particularly important innovation at this time was a method of applying layers of lacquer paint and then rubbing back the surface with sandpaper and then burnishing it with stone. In this rubbed paint or son mai technique, the under layers of lacquer would reappear through the process of rubbing back, while the final surface would be smooth and shiny. This technique creates one of the paradoxes of Vietnamese-style lacquer art, evident in the lacquer panels of Specula: the simultaneous appearance of translucent depth and of mirror-like sheen..."  

by Phoebe Scott, Ph.D


Temperamental to its environment, lacquer remains at the mercy of humidity, heat, time, and space. This can be demonstrated by the fact that depending on the percentage of natural humidity on a given day or place, the resin may or may not set. Even when it does, the colors may vary greatly. The artist is powerless to control completely the outcome of each image and must allow chance to play its part. To me son ta in Specula serves not only as a metaphor of trace and fossilization, but also as a direct and active witness to the immediate environment.

The resin itself, the color of dark amber or molasses, comes from the earth. As a result, the finished painting is the accumulation of time, environmental factors, state of mind and reflections of a memory that symbiotically form a single meditative image. To the touch, the surface may seem smooth and flat like a mirror, but the rich textures and deep colors beneath the surface evoke the gaze of the minds eye.

Phi Phi Oanh


Experiments with new substrates: Epoxy reinforced composite

Early on in the creation of Specula, I realized that it will be necessary to explore non traditional surfaces for painting with lacquer. The original support (substrate) of plywood covered with layers of clay and lacquer would be too unwieldy for the curve of the arch. The projected size of each piece would imply excessive weight that would complicate the installation and transport. Not to mention, the expansion and contraction of wood under abrupt changes of temperature and humidity puts greater stress on the stability of the painting.

For these reasons I started to experiment with different types of plastics. The first tests showed that raw son ta binds extremely well to an epoxy surface. This encouraged me to go further. Lightweight with adequate mechanical properties, the epoxy is reinforced with fiberglass to give it structure. Finally, the fact that epoxy emits lower volatile organic compounds into the atmosphere and does not require solvents for cleanup, making it the more environmentally friendly resin in the polymer family, made me finally decide on this material.

After experimenting with different catalysts and proportions, I was able to find the right recipe for creating the panels for Specula. In my studio, all the boards for Specula were created-- one mold for the curved apse, and one rectangle for the wall pieces.

50 x50 epoxy.jpg

Lacquer as action painting

Rough and intimate.    

In the drawing practice, there has always been a desire to get closer to the surface of a painting, to eliminate anything that might encumber the immediate expression of the body onto the image surface.  For example, in the tradition of Chinese ink painting, there is a even minor practice where the artist uses the tongue instead of a brush to create the drawing in one of the most intimate of gestures. 

Although not as immediate, the process of sanding, scraping, polishing, scumbling the lacquer with bare hands imbues an intimate physicality that deeply connects the surface to the individual.

Every single inch of a lacquer surface is composed in equal parts of physical violence and tender caresses.