Vu Thang, born in 1970, has enjoyed painting and the creative arts since he was a young child. Throughout his youth, he often used a stick to trace and sketch figures and ideas in the dirt on the ground. During his education at the Hanoi Fine Art University (graduated 1992), he fell in love with the tranquility of Chinese and other Southeast Asian art, and their influences remain in his work today.
However, according to the artist, the biggest influence on his works are the traditional funerary structures and art from the central highlands of Vietnam. He felt that the natural beauty, represented in the primitive styles unique to the area, were so beautiful that he moved to Sapa, in the northern highlands, with his wife and two children about ten years ago to be fully immersed in the culture and the land.
Technically, many of his paintings are mixed media, as he often incorporates scraps of traditionally patterned clothing from the Red Dao and the Black Dao hill tribe peoples into his works, sewing them on to the canvas, and integrating them into the larger piece.
Many of Vu Thang’s works depict a single figure, combining splashes of contrasting bright colors with smaller sections of their opposing colors – figures surrounded and highlighted with bright red and yellow, with some figure details filled in with darker greens and blues. Other works are more influenced by cave drawings and funerary sculpture of the hill tribe peoples, creating primitive figures that speak to more universal experiences, emotions and feelings. Vu creates using many different materials including wood, hemp, canvas, fabric and clay and uses the properties of each to help inform the entire piece.
His studio is messy, like many artists, covered with paints and pigments of all kinds; the air filled with music. Much of the natural beauty Vu Thang attempts to express is inspired by the nearby Fansipan mountain, the highest mountain in Vietnam and Indochina. Like he did in his childhood, Vu Thang still often explores the mountains and draws figures in the ground with a stick.
After seeing his work for the first time in 1994, art historian Nora Taylor, noted that, despite the doubt she held for young artists successfully pushing through the challenging and very time-intensive process of traditional lacquer painting, she was very impressed by Vu Thang’s continued dedication to the medium, and his efforts to bring together the traditional and the modern in the production of his works. “Where previously he described stone, trees, and water with the subtlety of his brush, he has now incorporated sand, pebbles, string, and other material directly into and onto the surface of his painting[s].” Later, she noted that his paintings and work seem to “adapt themselves to all styles and compositions.”
Pushing the boundaries of a very codified and traditional medium like lacquer takes more than just artistic skill and talent – it takes someone who has the confidence in their own work to bring something entirely new to the table, and someone who can face criticism head on, and defend his decisions with aplomb. Vu Thang has continued to embrace innovation and pursue his own style by bringing together the past and the present, to create the future of Vietnamese art.