"...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


SPECULA, notes

Starting from my first exhibition Black Box, I started to think of the contact point with lacquer as a “field of experience” as opposed to a representational type of painting or sculpture.  Specula, moves son mai from two dimensional wall painting to an architectural space that also asks the question of what could the image of lacquer be upon itself when unmediated through the experience of other images like oil painting or photography.  After Doi Moi the innovations of lacquer art in Vietnam are for the most part stylistic, modeled after the successive modernist changes in painting throughout the 20th century, and in a certain sense modeled upon thought habits leading up to the original.  Specula adopts another strategy treating son ta as a substance and son mai as a process whose inherent qualities folds into its own image, one that neither depends on an object nor belong to a subject.  This approach of immanence, the recognition for son ta to be a substance as an image of its own substance-ness (as opposed to transcendence) allows for a breaking away from a type of image making whose thought patterns are pre-established in other categorical and dual forms.  As such an image Specula contains no tension within itself, there is no otherness, or contradiction, it is in itself, of itself. 

Specula is an observation of son ta’s its ability to transmutate into distilled essences of basic matter unfolding into a series of memetic forms—stone, bricks, water— that suggests the interior of a cave.  The metamorphosis that converts the lacquer in stone, in moss, in crystalline water, is not an optical representation of nature like those Baroque paintings in trompe-l'oeil.  Rather, this symbolic cave is constructed with pigments of oxidation, water, precious metals, resin from Earth, establishing a parallel becoming with the natural matter of a cave. Layer by layer, as if condensing the slow process of geological formation based on sedimentation and erosion through the painting and sanding, the image of its own materiality emerges.

With respect to the body and the spectator, Specula echoes a desire for this vital reverberation.  As a type of theatre, the word Specula refers to the medical instrument used to perform examinations of bodily cavities, in the act analogous to the viewer penetrating the evocative space of this imaginary womb.  The name Specula declares that it is not an object of artistic contemplation, nor an open and public space available to the viewer in any light, time or context, but rather this work is about the act of prospecting, the act of looking with an intense and concentrated gaze at something that cannot be taken in at once as a whole in its entirety, but only understood through the slow intense looking at the sum of its parts.

Specula as an image is the result of the accumulation of time, environmental factors, moods and reflections and gestures symbiotically transformed into a type of mirror. To the touch, the surface is cool and smooth as a mirror, contradicting the rich textures and deep colors beneath the surface plane giving a simultaneous perception of the essential and the illusory, evoking a mental image, beyond the optical.  In the momentary simultaneous contradiction between the essential and the illusory, the object and its space, optical textures and tactile smoothness, being and nonbeing, lies a philosophical reflection of Chan Buddhism that calls upon a collected mind gathered upon the conscious awareness of perception and present, dissipating the metaphysical division between form and matter, the individual and their environment.


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.