The Look Of Lacquer

The paradoxes that produce lacquer painting

Lacquer is a natural medium, but it forces you to be in a certain environment and in a certain geography to work.

Visual artist Phi Phi Oanh, who works with lacquer, says lacquer is affected by its habitat, humidity, heat, time and even space. This makes lacquer painting a labor- and time-intensive art form.

Black Box (Installation view VN Museum room 2)

Son mai is traditional Vietnamese lacquer painting and uses resin extracted from cay son trees that grow in the mountains of Phu Tho province in northern Vietnam. This resin extraction is similar to the extraction of latex from rubber trees or the resin from pine trees. Fresh lacquer is white and turns amber or brown when it comes into contact with air. It’s then evaporated into a viscous liquid and used as a painting medium, colored traditionally with varying amounts of iron oxide to turn red or black. Artists also use eggshells, silver or gold leaf and mother of pearl in the process. Typically lacquer and these other materials, once applied to wood, make a very durable and waterproof surface.

Specula (Installation view with spectator)

Currently based in Danang, Phi Phi spoke to Oi Vietnam one rainy morning via Skype. Hailing from Houston, when she first came to Vietnam she said her initial thoughts were around the idea of oil painting. She received her BFA from Parsons School of Design in 2002 and a Masters in Art and Investigation from the Complutense University of Madrid in 2012. It was a 2004 Fulbright scholarship to research lacquer painting that brought her to Hanoi. With oil painting, she says typically there’s a certain scale involved, such as the size of the canvas, for instance. But then she thought wouldn’t it be more interesting to explore lacquer as a visual medium? It was the contradictions inherent in the medium that beckoned her.

Palimpsest (Lacquerscope)

“Lacquer is so paradoxical,” she says. “It needs heat and high humidity to dry, so the geography of the tropics. It needs dark to dry. It’s shiny on the surface, but deep.” That depth comes from the applied layers that are ground off the surface. So in one way lacquer appears reflective or mirror-like while simultaneously showing translucent depth. The required humidity also poses conservation challenges. Lacquer, she says, is indigenous. It was reinvented as a painting medium during French colonization, specifically around the time of the establishment of L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine in Hanoi in 1925. Previously, while lacquer work in Vietnam tended to be utilitarian, she says, used as a “skin” for wood to protect things like room and wall screens, boxes or funeral bowls, it is an ancient craft throughout Asia. It’s another contradiction that draws Phi Phi. On one hand, it has this history and on the other, in Vietnam, it’s only since the end of French colonization that there has been a period to reinterpret it. Lacquer has gone from unsigned, produced collectively folk art for functional purposes, she says, to an art form with a subject and an object where individuals as artists sign their names. “This gives lacquer agency,” she says. “The agency is because now lacquer has become an image. It can be shared and it can be interpreted.”

Mappa Mundi (frontal view)

This interpretation is also because of the form’s paradoxes. Daylight and indoor light at different times of the day produce different things to “see” in the painting. Seeing lacquer differently can just as easily be accomplished by shifting your viewing angle and noticing something else you hadn’t before. But a shift in color, Phi Phi says, is like a different session rather than just different layers. It can become, she says, a different experience entirely.

“So lacquer rewards those looking at it over time periods,” she says. “It slows down the gaze.” She adds that lacquer surprises her every day exactly because of the contradictions. “The way you work with it, it’s more like 3D or more like sculpting.” She’s interested in the materiality of lacquer painting: the physical richness of textures and surfaces found within it. “I try to create

experiences with my work,” she says, “to stop assumptions about what lacquer is or isn’t and to challenge and break assumptions around that thinking.”  

For more info on Phi Phi Oanh’s work, visit www.phiphioanh.com

Images Provided by Phi Phi Oanh

Feature image: Specula (Installation view from backside)

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