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Le Huu Nghiem: Buffaloes and My Childhood and Flowers in My Homeland

By J. Bowers | Posted 11/22/2006

Le Huu Nghiem: Buffaloes and My Childhood and Flowers in My Homeland

At the Creative Alliance at the Patterson's Amalie Rothschild Gallery through Nov. 25

Many Americans' only exposure to Vietnamese culture comes in the form of war photographs or takeout spring rolls. "Buffaloes and My Childhood" and "Flowers in My Homeland," two series of oil paintings by Ho Chi Minh City-based artist Le Huu Nghiem, fill the Creative Alliance's tiny second-floor Amalie Rothschild Gallery with bold, crayonlike lines, eye-popping swaths of jewel-like color, and a view of Vietnam that feels more like a children's storybook than a former war zone.

Apparently unable to decide whether he's a realist or a surrealist, Nghiem tackles both traditions here. The 18-painting series "Buffaloes and My Childhood" conjures a suitably childlike dream world where benevolent water buffalo--crucial to the rice trade in Vietnam--frolic with simply rendered, geometric child figures. Each canvas relies on a different dominant color, and the children's triangular hats and angular proportions echo and blend into the buffaloes' bold horns. In one painting, a child backstrokes peacefully through the air, accompanied by flying fish and framed by a buffalo's broad back. In another, a buffalo's aquamarine body blends seamlessly into a moonlit sky.

In nearly all of the paintings, the children's bodies stack and interlock like building blocks, evoking memories of childhood wrestling matches. The buffaloes themselves appear to represent a sense of safety and security--their hulking bodies often consume the entire canvas, and their proud, pleasant faces are nearly always curled protectively toward the child figures, suggesting that in Nghiem's world, the animals were more like pets than beasts of burden. Reminiscent of Chagall crossbred with Picasso's wittier moments, this series is nothing short of enchanting.

Nghiem's more realistic paintings of young Vietnamese women, often paired with flowers, are equally skillful but less successful than his surrealist buffalo works. Nghiem presents idealized, long-necked visions of female loveliness, often accompanied by misty clouds of flowers, and always devoid of the vibrant, playful energy seen in his other work. If it weren't for Nghiem's continued reliance on rich colors, defined lines, and figures that blend mysteriously into their backgrounds, you might think that "Innocence," "Sisters," and the other figural works were painted by a completely different artist.

Likewise for his "My Homeland" series of paintings, Nghiem abandons his penchant for figural work to render the rice paddies and homesteads of Vietnam as rectangular blotches of color. Though attractive, these paintings lack detail, with almost nothing to signify a sense of place or time. These paintings might have more impact if they were allowed room to breathe--this exhibit packs almost 40 canvases into a comparatively tiny space. Still, the sheer whimsy conjured by Nghiem's children and buffalo warrants a long, lingering look.

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