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Gracefully to Lê Thành Nhơn

I should never hesitate to admit that I regard Lê Thành Nhơn as one of the few artists whose power of creativity impresses me so immensely. During the past few decades, every time I visited his studio I could not keep myself from thinking of a great tree that unceasingly produces new flowers and fruits, and I was blissfully overcome. Every sculpture he has made, every painting he has done, is a clear evidence of another novel approach to techniques as well as an effort to transcend his former aesthetic achievements.

Lê Thành Nhơn's subjects are innumerable, ranging from religious philosophies to historical events, from famous heroes to unknown ordinary people, from Vietnamese legends to Australian contemporary phenomena, from a morning dewdrop on a graceful blade of grass to an ocean of human suffering. And his ways of expression are extremely flexible and never monotonous. His works are neither purely representational nor non-representational. Moving easily and creatively through various aesthetic approaches, he is thus able to escape any artificial labelling.

Standing in his studio and slowly looking around, I am overcome by a multitude of styles and mediums: here, the classical austerity or abstract expression of his painting compositions; there, the ethereal and wistful poetry of his watercolours; to the left, the sculptural monumentality of human figures in bronze; to the right, the symbolistically condensed shapes on his ceramics. Here, he provides a well-detailed background as a way of constructing paintings that reflect the density of the real world surrounding the described object. There, he strips away unnecessary details of setting and concentrates all attention on the central subject. Here, I see a picture capturing a figure that is beautiful in itself and is additionally confirmed in that beauty by the painting. There, I see a picture in which the subject is concealed, virtually cancelled, removed from normal form and normal lighting. In one work, I see an art of planes and colours that is non-objective and shows on its surface an attractive painterly, calligraphic quality. In another, I see various deformations and alterations of the subject that deeply reflect diverse psychological conditions. This stone bust of a young girl shows a delicate sensuality that is so intimate yet remains inaccessible. That bronze bust of a lady seems remote as if she is withdrawn deep into herself yet radiates sympathy and compassion.

Indeed Nhơn is so versatile that his works are unlikely to be fettered by any particular mood or form of expression. However, every work of his demands close attention, demands savouring, so that the minute shifts, the lustrous surface and texture - the constant fluctuations of tiny touches can be appreciated. Perhaps this is so because there is an essential exchange between painting and sculpture in Nhơn's working process. It is undeniable that his paintings are particularly sculptural in effect, and his sculptures involve a subtle calculation of light and darkness as usually realized in two-dimensional works. His paintings, therefore, are able to break free from the static single view of the subject; and his sculptures can achieve photographic beauty from any angle.

Standing in his studio, I feel great awe as if standing near vast mountains. Leaving his studio, I carry with me not only an aspiring feeling of a person who is given the privilege of witnessing a towering force of artistic creativity, but also a spiritual exaltation and, undeniably, a sense of the melancholic weight of thought. I think this melancholy comes from the ways he treats the human figures in his works: he celebrates their sensuous and heroic potentialities but, at the same time, he reminds us of their incessant vulnerability to pain and suffering. I think Lê Thành Nhơn has provided for the visual arts of his generation some of the most profound ways of expression of the human condition.

Lê Thành Nhơn impresses me immensely with his passion and talent, I must admit. But I must also admit, though this may sound eccentric, that what will remain in the deepest part of my inner life is a non-worldly yellow light radiating from most of his works. Perhaps I have seen that light somewhere on the old pages of the sutras, in the sunsets when the horizon glows with orange lustre, or on the roof of a moonlit pagoda. It is a light that purifies me, yet fills me with a meditative sadness every time I think of human sufferings. And for this, I owe a great deal of gratitude to Lê Thành Nhơn.


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