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Man, beast and the imagination: The art of Le Kinh Tai

No 3, Vol.12, November - December 2015


Exhibition hall at the Gem Centre

Quote the poet – ‘What is this life if full of care we have no time to stop and stare?’ Here in Vietnam most people are too concerned with crop harvests or maybe the balance of payments to give much thought to contemporary art. But standing in the voluminous gallery of the Gem building on the edge of Saigon's District One, I had the time to stop and if not to stare at, then to examine the huge paintings of an artist who, while there may not be much understanding of his genre in his own land, has achieved international recognition. No matter what you think of them, his works do command your attention, not just by their sheer size but also by the vibrancy of his use of colour and by fertile content of the ideas in their composition both in what was in the artist's mind and in what they might provoke in the viewer.

Artworks of Le Kinh Tai. Photos provided by Le Kinh Tai

I saw the display in the company of Miss Abegail Tran, manageress of the organiser ‘urbanArt’. I politely remarked that the artist's style looked ‘Naïve’ or Pop Art. She put it more bluntly – ‘Yes, when I first saw these works, I thought they were done by a kid in art class.’ But when you closely inspect the works, there is such detail and so much thought provoked by the juxtaposition of objects that you realise they are too complex to have been produced by a simple child. Furthermore, these are very large paintings and neither for a classroom wall nor even most houses. Most have been painted on two or three canvasses placed together, though you would hardly notice the join. The largest work measures a massive 200 cm by 600 cm.
Mr Tai uses oil, oil stick and oil powder with acrylic and charcoal as his materials, dabbing the mixture thickly onto to linen-covered boards. He is certainly a colourist, with vibrant orange and yellow hues being his favourites, giving an overall feeling to me of warmth. There is a certain playfulness in his images and whilst I saw nothing to laugh about, the biographical notice board by his paintings informs he has a great sense of humour.

Artworks of Le Kinh Tai. Photos provided by Le Kinh Tai

There are three features common to all the paintings in this exhibition. There is always the human element-some part of the body or a face. Then there is always an animal. In some cases, the two merge as mythological creatures. For example, one to make you smile has a chicken-man. The third elements are words or a phrase in English and/or in Vietnamese to point you in the direction of the meanderings of the artist's thoughts in creating his pieces. This will be useful for many people. For myself, I have stopped trying to work out what artists intend in this kind of work. It always surprises me when I meet an artist after seeing his works; he is invariably not a wild eccentric but a perfectly ordinary human being. I do not even look at the title given. I just look at the pictures and see what thought and feelings I get from the art personally.
One could take a ‘solve the puzzle’ approach to looking at this art. The title and the words on canvass would be the starting point to understanding this artist's intent or any possible message. Titles like ‘Revolutionising the Nervous System’, ‘The Cake is a Lie, isn't it’? and ‘Realisation Through Knowing and Understanding’ could provide hours of fun. A careful reading of the artist's world view in the brochure would help you a lot along your way too. He says his art is about ‘the internal conflict present in modern society. That might refer to the nature of mankind - neither angel nor beast.’ Another quote has ‘life is a perpetual struggle on the path of the pursuit of happiness’. Whilst this might suit some, personally for a puzzle, I think I shall stick to my daily Sudoku challenge.
There were thirteen frames in this exhibition. Let me give you an example about Mr Tai's work by describing one of them. This one is in bold colours-sea blue, sea green, black and his favourite orange. Also boldly written on it is the title - ‘Child Play Warrior’. The first thing you see is a man grinning with short hair and enormous teeth. On closer inspection you will see the face is that of a cat and the man is sprouting black and orange wings like those of a butterfly. The blue is meant to be the sea, as there are little toy like black and white boats on it. I found it at once playful and sinister.
It is not only the dimensions of Mr Tai's works that are on a grand scale. Being well-known internationally, they command sky-high prices. You will need to have $170,650 at the ready for the smallest picture. The largest has a price tag just short of the one million at $950,000. Unbelievable, is it not? That is what a well-known western art dealer based in Vietnam told me. If there are any interested wealthy art dealers reading this, please make your enquiries via the urbanArt address below. Due to the size of the pictures, only a small number can be viewed at their studio, the larger ones being in store at their warehouse or in the artist's studio.
I shall leave you to ‘draw’ your own conclusions.n
Le Kinh Tai's works were part of a three man show ‘Filters Art Exhibition’ held at Gem Centre third floor 8 Nguyen Binh Khiem Street on 28 and 29 October, 2015 and organised by urbanArt, 46 Nguyen Minh Khai St, Da Kao Ward, District One, Ho Chi Minh City, www.urbanart.vn

By Ritch Pickens
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