"The Painter turns a poem into a painting, the Musician sets a picture to music."
An accomplished artist, Huy-Khiem Nguyen, specializes in traditional lacquer painting, an art form that is centuries old. Khiem and his generation were influenced by the Indochina culture,particularly its traditional lacquer art, his preferred medium. Khiem discovered that lacquer is an excellent medium to express evocations of moods and abstract impressions.
Khiem was born in Hanoi in 1944. On his mother’s side, Khiem descended from a legendary mandarin family “Le Lai”, known for a famous general who, in 1418, sacrificed himself to save the Emperor “Le Loi”.
Khiem’s father was the president of the National Museum of Vietnamese History so Khiem and his family lived in the Museum’s Residency where he grew up surrounded by Art.
Khiem received his Bachelor’s degree at the Hanoi University of Industrial Fine Arts in 1966. He then obtained a Master’s of Specialized Design Dramatic Arts at the Fine Arts University in Ho Chi Minh City, and the Hanoi Academy of Theatre and Cinema in 1984.
Serving in the military for seven years until 1975 the end of the Vietnam War, Khiem was awarded the Vietnam Red Cross, a medal for “The Cause of Humanity”. While in the military, Khiem painted landscapes, seascapes, architecture-and portraits of his fellow soldiers to make them laugh.
A member of Hanoi Contemporary Arts Center and the Vietnam Fine Arts Association, Khiem exhibited regularly at the Introduction Center & Art Exchange in Hanoi. Khiem also participated in the Festival of Asian Arts in China (Beijing), and was awarded a prize for Asian Art by the Philip Morris Company in 1999. He also worked for nearly three decades with the Vietnam Fine Arts Company.
Khiem’s paintings have been bought by corporations, organizations and private collectors in Asia, Morocco (Marrakech, Essaouira) and Europe- particularly Paris, France. His noted painting, titled Hung Kings Temple, was selected to be a national gift to President Zail Singh of India in 1987.
A Contemporary Art
For Khiem, when beginning a piece, the most creativity happens initially, in visualization, when he defines his image -and not during the process- because his medium does not support excessive expression once work begins. Once he is focused, Khiem outlines his vision on a black, lacquered board and then develops details step-by-step.
In Khiem’s eyes, each subject has their own symbolic color and often an opposite hue. His colors have no precise concept, no limitation. If he is satisfied with a solid background color, the rest of the details appear with brightness and clarity. Viewers see not only objects but also light itself. For Khiem, the importance of primary color is substantial; they appear with favored, complimentary, subdued colors.
Khiem’s themes are the beauty of nature, landscapes and the daily lives of people. His figures, arrayed between layers of lacquer, appear both real and unreal. In his area of focus, a tiny triangular shape can represent a worker with his palm leaf conical hat, small dot figures can represent a stone road or haystacks; a bright line can represent harmonizing golden sunlight.
Khiem’s visions are multi-dimensional; his paintings can often hang either horizontally or vertically. Khiem believes that one’s eyes are free to enjoy and discover new, surprising details each time his paintings are viewed.
Traditional Techniques of Lacquer Painting
Lacquer met ornamental needs by highlighting craft motifs that decorated temples, architectural elements, palaces, containers, bottles and musical instruments. So its protection and embellishment will be glossy, lasting and watertight.
The process may take months or years depending on the technique used and the number of layers of lacquer, a meticulous craft that takes patience.
First, lacquer resins are harvested from the lacquer tree. Then highest quality of wood is selected, and then covered with cotton gauze, a thick mixture of sawdust, alluvial soil and lacquer.
The prepared black board becomes thoroughly sealed, grounded and silky smooth, ready for some patterns to be sketched out on the surface by the Artist. These patterns are then bordered by red brown or black lacquer.
Then outlines in chalk are made in white with eggshells and clear varnish. Usually this is followed by carefully applying clay, mother of pearl, silver leaf and gold leaf.
Then several more layers of different colored lacquers are painted by brush, with clear lacquer layers in between. Each layer has to be air dried for at least two days before being polished with sandpaper, grindstone and cutlet-bone.
This same process is repeated layer by layer until the material becomes smooth. For the 11th layer, the material is coated with finest lacquer and finally it is highly polished with coal dust and water.
Consequently "lacquer painting" is in part a misnomer, since the bringing out of the colors is not done in the preparatory painting but in the burnishing of the lacquer layers to reveal the desired image beneath, the preferred colors with textural effects.