Witnessing the portrait of a lady

(No.2, Vol.5,Mar-Apr 2015 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Being an artist can be a precarious way to earn a living. One way to surmount this difficulty, as with any business, is to find a niche market. Portraiture may no longer be seen by the art critic as a major focus of contemporary art, but over the last twelve years, Phuong Quoc Tri has established himself as foremost in this field in Vietnam. His commissioned works typically render him in the region of four thousand dollars a piece. He is the latest artist to have an exhibition in co-sponsorship with the Craig Thomas Galley at the Sofitel Saigon Plaza in Ho Chi Minh City. I was lucky enough to be invited along with a select group of art lovers to a sneak preview. Even luckier, the artist was brave enough to allow us to see him at work producing a portrait of a middle-aged lady before our very eyes.
There are only nine frames on show and yet there is diversity. One is not a portrait and yet it captures the essence of a very Vietnamese icon. It has a place of pride behind the concierge's desk and will be the first of the exhibition you will see. From below, it appears to be an object hung on a wall-a bookcase or a family shrine, I surmised. Close up, you realise it is of the famous one-pillar pagoda in Hanoi.
Also standing apart from the rest there is a reclining rear view nude. The remaining seven are oil on canvass paintings of young women. One is a sample commission of a fresh-faced young lady. I was surprised to learn from the press release that Tri is entirely self-taught. He paints in a largely realistic style. There no contortions or attempts at the semi-abstract. The U.K's one and only female prime minister Margaret Thatcher, famous for disparaging remarks about Francis Bacon's portraits, would probably have liked this exhibition. One technique he has that gives a wet look, almost as if he were painting in the rain, are long steaks of white running down the hair. Only one picture departs from the realism slightly. Simply entitled ‘Portrait of a Woman,’ the hair is pulled out longitudinally and streaks of what seems to be black paint drip from it.
Three paintings are in black and white and could have been of the same demure young lady, front on and in profile, looking classically Vietnamese and in one case with a hair style like that of the banded head wear of the North. The last pair were my favourite. They are almost historic in character and brought to mind Holbein. The young lady in traditional garb seems to be from a long-ago golden age. Indeed, her clothes are golden and the background is bright yellow. It is very pleasing to the eye and fittingly entitled ‘Lady of the Past’.
For fully an hour and a half, the artist was at work on the portrait of a middle- aged lady seated and wearing a simple black dress. Whilst she was perhaps no great painting in oils, the woman was certainly not unattractive and there was a great deal of character in her face. The concentration and deep inspection of the artist contrasted with the stillness of the sitter-she had the patience of Job! Whilst a companion remarked about the beauty of the eyes in the painting, I actually felt the artist was not having one of his better days. I would have liked the painting to be have been as we the spectators saw it; in profile and featuring the dress. Instead he produced only a head, chubbier than real life. But we could not really judge, as the artist came to a halt declaring his work thirty per cent unfinished just as the Chilean wine and canapés were beginning to run out.
One peculiarity I must mention is that the artist used no palette. Instead he drew form daubs of paint spread out on a tree trunk fashioned into a chair.
In short, this is an exhibition by an artist of true calibre and should attract dealers, collectors and the casual art lover in general. As usual, with Sofitel, it is a free show and in full public view. Go along, see, enjoy and judge for yourselves. You have nothing to lose and if you have a few thousand dollars to spare you might even find yourself gaining a work of art!
‘Skin Deep’ an exhibition by the artist Phuong Quoc Tri at the Sofitel Saigon Plaza, 17 Le Duan Boulevard, Dist.1, Ho Chi Minh City in association with Craig Thomas Gallery is on display from 3 March until 4 April 2015.

By Ritch Pickens
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