Nguyen Xuan Huy
How is it that an artist born in Vietnam in 1976 is so immensely knowledgeable about European art and culture? As a child, Huy came across French art volumes from the Indochina period and was fascinated. He ventured to make copies after Géricault, Delacroix and Boucher. Soon he was drawing quick anatomical sketches, portraits and perspectives.
At the age of seventeen, the young man came to Germany, learned the language within a year and a half, caught up on his school-leaving exams and studied at the Burg Giebichenstein Art Academy in Halle and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux. In Europe, Nguyen Xuan Huy was able to visit the original works depicted in the books of his childhood. He studied painting techniques and followed oil painting to its origins, from the alla prima of the present day down to the glazes of the old masters. Nguyen works traditionally, building composition, perspective, dynamics, colour and light consciously and carefully. He engages models.
The body is always present in Nguyen's painting. Its representation belongs to the traditions of European art from antiquity to the present. The omission of clothing means renouncing fashion and temporal classification and thus facilitates access to the depiction of eternally recurring facts and patterns of action. At the same time, nudity holds erotic potential, an energy that confers power. Its use (as well as its abuse) is part of our culture.
Nguyen's first major works after graduation dealt with Vietnam's recent present, the war and the communist regime. In the meantime, after the artist has spent more than half of his life in Europe, his new homeland has come into focus. He turns to our problems, which are less obvious but just as serious as those of his country of origin. Numerous compositions explore aspects of our existence, our hubris, blindness and ignorance. Other works, however, point to the strength and beauty of the human will and the option to stand firm in the face of repression and manipulation.
The restrained optimism of recent years has largely disappeared from the artist's latest work. This does not affect the attractiveness of the painting - it is becoming increasingly virtuosic, the compositions more multi-layered and the narratives more complex.
Nguyen's painting "Will-o'-the-Wisps" belongs to the art-historical type of night pictures. Dense cloud-like formations darken the sky. The seventeen protagonists appear bathed in a ghostly stage light like those of Toulouse-Lautrec or Degas. Fifteen of the sitters are feverishly making themselves busy but without any discernible purpose, two have cowered fearfully. The whole scenery seems theatrical, the objects like set pieces or props. The floor is missing, everything seems to float in space. With the title of the picture, the artist refers to misdirection and deception. The situation is recognisable and contemporary: instead of ways out, the theatre management presents a programme that leads deeper and deeper into chaos.
"The Source" is reminiscent of William Gibson's utopias of networking brains and computers in cyberspace - and at the same time of the current plans to create a metaverse in which the supply of material goods is increasingly replaced by digitally marketed dreams and fantasies. Artificial intelligences are taking over - ostensibly for the betterment of the whole planet, but de facto to ensure total domination for an elite. In "Expectation", the individual already appears as a passive object, perhaps even as a commodity. Tubes supply the bodies with nutrient solution. Slipcovers and packaging films are reminiscent of a furniture warehouse, an art depot. Humanity takes leave of active existence and mutates into the disposal mass of algorithms.
The dramatic light composition that Nguyen Xuan Huy chose for his work "Exercises 2.0" refers to the omens of our days. The foreground, glaringly illuminated as if by a lightning strike, contrasts with gloomy evening glow. A bizarre scene is snatched from the darkness. Naked men and women tug as if in madness at red-stained sheets in which they have entangled and clawed themselves. Foreground and background of the nightmarish scene consist of mountains of bloody flesh. The large-scale work brings together iconographic topoi of the artist's past years. The sheets stand for entanglements, the sleep of reason and denial of reality. None of the protagonists looks up, none perceives the world, their eyes are closed or their gaze lowered. The mountains of flesh symbolise unrestraint and greed. In its extraordinary drasticness, "Exercises 2.0" refers to Europe's current situation on the brink of catastrophe as well as to apocalyptic visions of the past.
In contrast to this large format, "The View" appears introverted. Against the backdrop of a crumbling façade, three figures practise various procedures of ignorance. One buries herself in a bed sheet. Two others experiment with shimmering rescue blankets, as they are a mandatory part of first-aid kits in Germany. The sheets reflect UV and infrared light - and perhaps also uncomfortable truths.
The artist varies the theme almost playfully in his smaller format "Silence 18". Against a dark background, the sitter's light-coloured body appears exposed and is surrounded by the golden foil of the headdress. The composition refers to Franz von Stuck's painting "Sin". In terms of content, however, Stuck’s theme of erotic temptation is replaced by the depiction of a metaphor of the so-called filter bubble. Spiritual instead of carnal temptation: no one contradicts, one no longer has to accept other opinions.
Nguyen Xuan Huy's works build bridges from the 21st to the 19th century. They respond to the visual patterns of the present and at the same time possess the mastery and thematic density of classical European painting. Nguyen's art addresses contemporary issues and formulates haunting parables of extraordinary depth, complexity and virtuosity. In an age that has lost its standards, he creates images of impact and clarity.