Timeless Moments

    This article is from Asian Art News.  Click on images to see the original publication  

Timeless Moments

by Ian Findlay

While the contemporary art worlds of China, India, and the majority of the countries in Southeast Asia have developed beyond what was imaginable just two decades ago, that of landlocked Laos has been virtually ignored until recently. The view of Laos form the outside world has long been one in which, like that of Myanmar and Cambodia, the great traditions of Buddhist architecture and sculpture, antiques, ceramics, and textiles from Luang, Prabang and Vietiane, for example, dominated. This view, however, has been difficult to change, even in this digital age and with greater international interest in contemporary Asian art.

The political and social upheavals of the past five decades have had an extraordinary impact on Laotian society and culture, which has impacted the development of contemporary art in the country. Over the past 50 years a visual arts culture, with strong French influences, has been slow to develop. Although modern Laotian painting can be traced back to the 19th century, there was little formal education. A positive beginning was made when, in 1959, the Ecole National des Arts Lao (Laos National School of Arts) was established: in 1973, Laos was dropped from the school’s name. Since the founding of the school hundreds of artists have been educated there. And throughout the five decades, many artists were also sent overseas to further their studies. As other Asian artist before, a Laotian art diaspora does exist, albeit small, but still waiting to be discovered.

Since the late 1960s, contemporary Laotian artists have labored under difficult circumstances at home and abroad, At home, they faced political and social crises that hampered greatly the development of any kind of major visual art infrastructure; abroad, they have been viewed as a minority, marginalized at the periphery of the mainstream international art world, a fate that, until only two decades, was the lot of the majority of other Asian artists, too. Yet, artists such as Phouvanh Thammavong, Douangdy Khanthavilay, Khamsouk Keomingmouang, Luangrath Kongphat, Kanha Sikounnavong, and Thep Thanvonsouk have participated in many regional and international exhibitions. Of these artists, Thep Thavonsouk is the exception for he has long been part of the Laotian diaspora and has been subjected, perhaps more than most Laotian artists, to the broadest cultural influences and has established an important reputation for himself internationally.

Thep Thavonsouk was born in 1947 into a Buddhist family. At 19, he was the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the University of St. Lawrence in New York State. In 1972, he left Laos to settle in Calgary, Canada, where he has lived off and on for 35 years. But since 1989, he has divided his time between Canada and Laos, between “the rainy season and the dry season.”

This division of time and place has not altered Thavonsouk’s perceptions of his heritage and its place in his aesthetics and art practise. “From the beginning I have been Laotian. I didn’t change my name so my identity was intact. Not an easy thing do because people say it is too difficult to pronounce or to remember or that it is too long,” says Thavonsouk. “My name is a part of my identity, which is the strong influence of my family and my culture and who I have been and who I am. I have long realized that, wherever I may happen to be, I will always be a Laotian.”

One important traditional aspect of Lao aesthetic is found in temple paintings, depicting narrative elements of Buddhism and were heavily influenced by Thai painting, but there was also a Chinese influence. The aesthetics of modern painting were strongly influenced by Western art, especially French, in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This is quite clear in the landscapes of the period. In the latter half of the 20th century Laotian art students drew some of their inspiration of painting from the countries in which they were sent to study—Bulgaria, Russia (the then Soviet Union), Vietnam, Cambodia, Hungary, and France, among others. Thep Thavonsouk’s aesthetic background likes primarily with French influences but he has also embraced a Chinese element in his art. The Chinese influence is seen quite clearly in Thavonsouk’s recent watercolor-ink-and-pastel works on paper such as Light and Shadow series made between 2005 and 2007. Light and Shadow I, Light and Shadow II, and Light and Shadow V are of particular interest as they clearly demonstrate Thavonsouk’s attention to the quality of ink wash, the blending of watercolor and pastel, and the lighting of his art. In these works, he achieves a subtlety of mood, a timelessness of place, a sense that nature is inherently fragile, and a spiritual stillness that embraces the viewer within a meditative moment.

Throughout the past half-century, views of Lao life have been dominated by political and social considerations that laid the foundation for art that presented a pleasant narrative of life and traditions. Much of the art, from simple village scenes to landscape painting, existed in a contemporary context of narrative and was readily accessible and understood by the broad public. Even as painting styles have broadened from dominant figurative and narrative painting to include non-representational and abstract works, underpinning much of the art are clear strains of nostalgia, efforts to retain significant traditional views of the environment from the simplest village architecture to the most complex, and a degree of patriotism that showed a certain abundance and joy of the simple life. Such things have been difficult for many artists to shake off. But there are those who ask: Why should they be discarded, they are a part of our culture? All of this is understandable as Laos has been subjected to myriad cultural influences from within Asia itself and from the West, particularly Eastern Europe and France, although American cultural influences have also made the presence felt. Such influences not only continue to underpin much of the art made today in Laos, but are being incorporated into a fuller understanding of how the reality of expressing a new world can be realized as the country opens up to the outside world more and more.

Thep Thavonsouk understands well the processes of change and the need to adapt. He understands the influences of the past and is drawn to them, as is clear from his extended oeuvre. He understands, too, the Western cultural forces, having worked and studied within the context of these for three decades and more in North America and Europe. And he understands how to use these elements in his art for he knows that art does not spring spontaneously from the spirit, regardless of how much one may wish it to be so.

The making of art over the long term requires roots to flourish. Thavonsouk’s early influences lie deep in in Lao culture and in the dominant French presence of his time, as well as other European modes of thinking and painting. Through these he has also learned to be thoroughly disciplined if he were to make a career of art.

 “I always painted in Laos and I studied watercolor, oils and drawing with graphite and pencil with Marc Leguay for four years. This gave me a solid foundation on which to build,” says Thavonsouk. “I just fell into the French influences. I didn’t think that I was going to become a temple painter, which is what most people did then, and I learned from this time pf my life to be organized and work consistently. The discipline of working everyday is something I have to this day.  I have to be in my studio every day, even if it is just to think. I need to be disciplined but also because sometimes a work will take a month or so to complete. I have even taken up to four years to complete a painting. But I don’t draw anymore because I am afraid that I might fall back into my past realistic and impressionistic ways.”

A great deal of Thavonsouk’s early art was figuration and realism. His figures of monks remind one of much of the art made popular by artists in Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam some years ago. The figures of monks and nuns in both isolated settings and in temples spoke directly to the patriotic and spiritual sensibilities of many artists. But as the countries have opened up and tourists began to arrive in large numbers, such figures have become icons that represent to foreigners what they believe to be the real contemporary culture of these countries. Traditional landscapes, too, of villages and fecund nature populated by stereotypical peasants, have also become icons that feed unrealistic perceptions of these cultures. Such images are false gods, easily accessible, but not understood by people who support these art markets. It is as if outsiders want an imaginary past, tinged by sentimentality and nostalgia, where nothing has changed. Such notions are dangerously encouraged by numerous outsiders and do a disservice to the development of contemporary culture in such countries as Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam.

Thavonsouk has sought a fresh way to incorporate tradition and modernity within his work. His art clearly speaks to the past and spiritual traditions but it also addresses his environment through subtle abstraction that has the force of time behind it. The clearly defined figuration that has informed Thavonsouk’s early work has been completely eradicated from his painting. The shimmering landscapes of recent years possess a weightless quality that draws the viewer into their midst. Many of these landscapes are anchored by monk figures, appearing, at times, to be gliding into the landscape or hovering just above the ground in the manner of an apparition.

Works in his Saffron Robes series, such as Saffron Robes, (2004) and Saffron Robes I (2006-2007), as well as Light and Shadow III, (2005) Light and Shadow IV, (2007) and Light and Shadow VI (2007) speak directly to a sense of mystery to time and place and to the ethereal qualities of Thanvonsouk’s art.

“Significant changes began to appear in my art about eight or nine years ago. The change was unintentional and gradual. It was as if I was in a dream state and then I began to let go of the past and my emotions were freer,” says Thavonsouk.

“I felt I was moving more and more into paintings that are more from the heart and soul rather than technique and style. I think that is another element that has come out in the past two decades is simplicity, which I think now is clear in my work.”

“But throughout all of that it becomes a little stronger but more spiritual and silent. It is no longer a fight among the colors that I use. I think there is a little fight going on, but there is more harmony, and that is because there is more harmony in my life now. They seem to go hand in hand. Perhaps now I don’t feel that I need to prove to the world what I am and what I do now. I once thought that I had to listen to people and do what pleased them.”

Thanvonsouk’s earlier figurative works may have appeared a little still in their narrative form, regardless of the flowing line and softness of his colors. His recent abstractions, however, combined with a gentle figuration, are imbued with a lyrical transparent quality that hints at the sublime world of nature. The drama and the layering of his colors—all oil—carry the imagination and the eye on a meditative quest.

The colors, which range from mixed reds and saffron to purple, from subtle grey and black to blues that are almost royal in their intensity, are among the most significant changes in the artist’s work over the past decade.

“My colors changed because I didn’t feel the need to be showy in the way of Gerhard Richter. I think that is a way of covering up by using showy colors, but I wanted to learn to use fewer colors in order to bring something out of my, the feeling is that less is more and that I can reach within myself to say something through less,” says Thavonsouk. “The colors explain very well my feelings of what should be on the canvas. My feelings are more and more leaning towards the ethereal elements of no perspective, yet retaining the sense of the three-dimensional world. To do this, I need to layer the paint very thinly and repeat this so that the works become more translucent and it would take a lot of reflection on the part of the viewer to feel what the painting is trying to say. So my work is not sentimental. I don’t want my work to depict something that tells the whole story or speak to a well-defined narrative.

One may view these works, at times, as a romantic view of the world, but it is one that is deeply felt and one that is the result of long study. And it is one that has escaped from the clutches of earlier influences as a Monet, Whistler, and Turner, artists that Thanvonsouk admires greatly. There is now greater confidence in his art and the expression of his own desires. He has let go and moved on so that he may view his culture and understand it in a truly contemporary context without it being judged by the standards of others.

“I don’t need to look back at my guides, that is, at the masters. They arenot my guides anymore. At the age of 50, I allowed myself to have a voice,” Thanvonsouk says. “I am tied to my abstraction but this is not because I don’t like my realistic works, because I do. It is that I have my voice now. Maybe it is also because it is seeing the monks in Laos clearly and watching the mist over the Mekong and the monsoon rains. It was easy for me to put these elements into my work, blurring the figures within the landscapes. A very soft narrative that is very real to me. This is why I more or less eliminate perspective. The monks walk away from the viewer simply because monks don’t like to be looked at.”

Thep Thavonsouk has the perspective of time and distance now that has helped him to make his art that is forged with a better understanding of himself and his culture together. To look at his art and be lost in its simple beauty is to look into ourselves and to question our place within the world.