by Quyen Hoang
Will Thurman ‘Life Paintings, Volume 1: 2015-2020’
Galerie Quỳnh (118 Đường Nguyễn Văn Thủ, Đa Kao, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City) Oct. 20 – Dec.12, 2020
In this fervent age of over-exposure on social media, mystery is a rare commodity. Will Thurman’s solo exhibition presents an intriguing scenario by requesting its visitors to leave their phones sealed and guarded at the reception desk – meaning, no photography is allowed. Prior to arriving at the show, even the name Will Thurman and his work remain an enigma to most. The gallery released zero photos of the artist’s artworks and a casual audience would be hard pressed to find a professional description of his biography anywhere by Googling. Will Thurman is a 31-year-old artist from New York, who has been living in Vietnam’s cities and countryside for 10 years and is fluent in the language. It was his wish that no photography be allowed, ‘to preserve the integrity of the artworks’. This is his first major public exhibition, a culmination of 5 years of intensive painting,
In place of a standard essay, we have this cryptic passage on the gallery’s website:
“Galerie Quynh presents:
An attack on the senses, a spectacular, a word of warning.
A Great Plague
of serene terror
of willed innocence and candied Errors.
Of cows and rats and pigs and pigeons and machines
that fail to gauge us.
and Uncle Huệ.
Things balanced on heads at some given time
but first titles that transmute as poetry or rather erratic
cut-stitched to stifle the glitches of reality
or waking dreams – or live visions?
Whatever crude cacophony
An outside world – the vulgar menace
Plays mental tennis with our inner strength
just for the thrill that weird pleasure
Squandering time (depending on the weather)
Take baby steps since the bridge self-shatters
and the boat self-sinks and the boat self-sinks
And certain drugs don’t require direct administration.
Enter at your peril
And hold fast to stir still.
Through the Door stands a Dream
of the Noon variety.
— (re)arrangement by Thái Hà, words appropriated from Suzanne Brøgger, Adam Gopnik, Nguyễn-Hoàng Quyên, Quynh Pham, David Rieff and the artist.”
Basic questions, naturally, plague one’s mind: who is Will Thurman? Is he (or she) someone famous to have prominent writers such as Adam Gopnik and David Rieff writing about him? I was curious. Truth be told, the ‘no-phone’ request did take me aback for a few seconds – it was the first time Galerie Quỳnh has made such a request in their 17-years in Ho Chi Minh City. My initial bewilderment yielded as a glance through the gallery’s ground floor prompted genuine delight. Stepping through the entrance, occluded by silky grey curtains, one is relieved at the sight – an exhibition of painting, after all! One of the paintings here is titled ‘Through the Door stands a Dream’ (2020).
And yet, the Thurman puzzle did not abate. ‘Curiouser and curiouser!’, I think, looking at the Vietnamese words on many of these paintings. Is this Will Thurman actually Vietnamese? For the manner in which the inscriptions are employed betrays the mind of someone who has been raised and/or living in Vietnam for years, to the extent that their messages connote social observations familiarly dear to a native local.
For one, their vivid colors definitely gladden one’s eyes and heart – Cy Twombly, Philip Guston, R. B. Kitaj, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Willem de Kooning are some of the names referenced in the pages penned by the aforementioned writers about Thurman’s paintings. Their flat pictorial, even artless portrayals of animals and men and hybrid creatures, vehicles and buildings and assembly lines, fetuses and soldiers, blenders and boom box and cameras, Pope and Egyptian deities, among myriad others, in a seemingly ad-hoc manner towards which one’s mind is rather stupefied to make any sense of what it all means, prompted me to hastily refer to the exhibition’s map. In it, the works’ titles reveal themselves to be quite forthright, if not wittily earnest. Consider one: ‘There are men who make people kiss their hand. I’d rather take the chair. And somehow deforestation largely goes unnoticed.’ (2017). Or ‘Pain hurts less when the source is obvious’ (2019), and ‘She thinks one thing, he thinks another. But he’s the one who has to walk home alone at night.’ (2015).
The show’s map also reveals that there are, astoundingly, 103 artworks in total. Whereas the gallery’s mezzanine displays nine thematically white, medium-sized paintings, nothing prepared me for the visual onslaught awaiting in the two rooms on the second floor. The one adjacent to a balcony houses large works of 185 x 200-300 cm, mounted very closely together as if we are looking at one continuous Mexican mural and with their resplendent colors depicting rather strange and surreal imageries. The small back room, on the other hand, contains around 50 paintings of various sizes in salon-style hanging which, effectively, leave you rather speechless by the sheer cacophony of it. All the while, more works are placed on the gallery’s vintage lift area, hallways and ledges on the stairway’s landings. The curation of which was completely entrusted to Quyhn Pham, the gallery founder: ‘Regarding this idea of his five-year output, I did not want to install the show chronologically. I wanted it to reflect this sort of non-linear trajectory of Will’s career’, she says.
Not unlike a modern take on Aesop’s fables, was my impression. Case in point, we have works with self-explanatory titles such as ‘Pig in guillotine’ (2019), ‘Pigeon in shackles’ (2019), and ‘Cow in noose’ (2019); though as their names infer, the tales of these creatures in Thurman’s depictions are more akin to Giambattista Basile’s fairytales in nature than Disney’s polished omission of grotesque details. Traces and fragments pulled from the chaotic fabric of reality are ever-present in his seemingly benign, deceptively cheerful images that range from the mundane to the absurd. On ‘Rescue’ (2019) and ‘Fall’ (2018), full quotes from Vietnamese news are recited word for word, reporting deadly accidents involving fishermen and a construction worker respectively. Accompanied by the artist’s loose, almost dreamlike drawings, the gravity of those situations is as downplayed as (if not accentuating) the detached diction employed by newsmen and accordingly, our desensitized reaction to reading them.
While Thurman’s cryptic visuals can pose as a challenge to lightning understanding on the viewer’s part, it is his agile incorporation of the written and the painted in many works that to me, yields an inviting gateway into his acute pathos. On ‘Broken record’ (2017), he muses ‘The wisest choice was leaving – [maybe, now beginning seeing the merits of staying] because what is left behind will remain/lifting heavy things can strain the back.’ At this stage, as you can tell, words and images for this artist are inseparably of equal introspection – the drawings are as wildly imagined, and yet also thoughtfully constructed as their titles and scribbles are concise and biting. I was particularly drawn to ‘Savagery’ (2020), belonging to the previously described ‘white room’, in which the directly translated Vietnamese ‘Man rợ’ takes upper-center stage on a spare yet cutting composition: who knows! a singled-out word surrounded with animal figurines and blotted out contours of dominating, shadowy men can suggest confrontation with [the history of] humankind’s dark nature. ‘Would everything change if these works were altogether left ‘Untitled’?’, I asked myself at some point.
As somewhat (or initially) confusing, complex and even sensorially convoluted these paintings are, in the end, they truly and effectively bespeak what the exhibition’s title connotes: ‘Life Paintings’, which one can also interpret as ‘painting of/about life’. Now, how can anybody possibly capture the stories and meaning of life in its entirety, lucidly, wholly, truthfully – a perennial quest that every writer, filmmaker, artist, philosopher can relate to and has been striving for? It forever remains revealing yet elusive, perceptible yet layered, quotidian yet holding unsuspected (even uncalled-for or shocking) surprises – whose qualities I believe, are abundantly transparent in Thurman’s works as showcased in this show. One is free and welcomed to leave this show feeling perplexed, beckoning the urge for a revisit. As I stepped out onto the gallery’s balcony on the second floor for some fresh air, the sounds coming off the street suddenly took over – of boys and girls from the secondary school opposite pouring out after class, of motorbike honks and engines reverberating loudly, laughter and chatter echoing up and filling this colorful facet of urban Saigonese landscape – I found myself smiling, ‘Such is life.’