It would be a disservice to Van Chu to spend the majority of this article discussing the unfortunate pairing of his work with photographs by Carl Oelerich, so the criticism will be brief. Chu’s latest exhibit, Photographic Brushstroke, shares gallery space with photographs by Carl Oelerich, who displays candid narrative pictures exploring America’s tense relationship with modern day Cuba. Both Chu and Oelerich have black and white pictures on display, they have clearly drawn influence from abroad, and both artists convey a powerful message. Do these similarities warrant shared exhibit space? Absolutely not. The stark contrast between the ethereal and personal nature of Chu’s work and Oelerich’s politically charged photographs is jarring and detracts from the work of both artists.
In spite of the misguided arrangement, it’s difficult not to be swept away by Chu’s work.
In person Chu is gracious, poised, and carries himself in a way that is endearingly awkward but self assured. When the subject turns to his art, Chu’s demeanor changes to that of an enthusiastic child who can’t wait to share his secrets. He makes sweeping gestures with his hands, a warm smile dominates his face, and most striking is the joy in his eyes, which conveys an obvious passion for his work. He firmly believes that an image can transform something ordinary into something extraordinary.
Chu’s creative technique of photographing pigment in water has created quite a buzz in the arts community, but he remains grounded and focused on pushing the boundaries of his work. The first public display of his new work was at Artists of Utah’s 35 x 35 exhibition, in the fall of 2009. Among the more than seventy pieces exhibited, his “Part of Self Series #2” attracted a good deal of attention and sold on opening night. Then earlier this year his “Dragon #2” won First Place at the Central Utah Art Center’s Utah Ties show, juried by Tim Hawkinson.
In his work Chu says he wants to get away from photography’s foundational role of documentation. He says the process of sitting behind a camera and capturing doesn’t have enough of “the self” in it. “What I really want to do is create instead of capture.”
His latest incarnation, “Photographic Brushstroke,” takes the viewer on a journey that is an intimate look at the evolution of Chu as an artist. At the entrance to the exhibit are three of his earlier pieces from the collection, one that he began working on in 2008. Of all the pieces in the exhibit these initial three are the most reminiscent of traditional Chinese paintings in their symmetry and deceptively simple lines. Each one shares a common element, a small unassuming tree that complements its surroundings but sometimes appears dwarfed by the world it inhabits. Chu explains that this is a reflection of the isolation he felt when he first moved from Vietnam to the United States in 2001.
He left a close-knit group of supportive friends to come to America to pursue his education. It took some time but he became adjusted to his new surroundings, and this transition is expressed in his work through the small tree, which does not appear in the rest of Chu’s exhibit: he moved past his sense of isolation. The viewer travels with him as Chu settles into his environment and enters the main gallery where the full expression of Chu’s technique can be found.
Chu began college as a computer science major. When he began studying photography he did not purposely set about to incorporate the Chinese-inspired paintings that surrounded him in his native Vietnam. “At first I didn’t really know what my influence was,” he says, but as this new body of work started to develop “ it started looking very familiar and it became very clear . . . that the Asian part of me is really coming out. It’s projecting on every piece of photography I do.”
His minimalist style echoes an elegance that is unique to traditional Chinese paintings. Chu explains that the ancient art form does not illustrate something in detail but instead captures the essence of what is being depicted. In his exhibit Chu hopes to bring something new to the form. There is a seemingly calculated symmetry to it, and a balance that lets the eye wander comfortably over the image. This is a testament to Chu’s skill as an artist because it’s difficult to imagine how one achieves a look of concise, purposeful strokes with ink in water even though he only impacts the ink by blowing on it.
“Chinese painting has remained the same for many hundreds of years. I want to modernize it, to make it exciting again,” Chu explains.
Chu succeeds in this effort. It’s tempting to initially see his work as simple images, but look closer. There are dark veins of ink bleeding in to water and fading as they become diluted. Then only small tendrils are left on the outskirts and those eventually disappear entirely. It’s a bit like looking at an aerial view of a canyon with smaller rivers playing on the periphery. In reality it is several photographs layered on top of one another or laid side by side, through a painstakingly long process.
In one case Chu spent almost a full week taking 1,000 photographs per day to produce a layered image titled, “Dragon.” It’s a large intricate photograph where, like with most of his work, Chu relied on the pigment to provide the inspiration. He dropped the ink in water and waited.
“In every photograph there is a key moment that defines the rest of the work,” Chu said.
After the defining moment he goes through each photograph and chooses which one to use, the one that will express his inspiration. Chu said the ink is in control while he observes with a camera, but he reclaims the control by compiling the images into a greater whole. His most recent piece, “Trees and Mushrooms,” is also a number of photographs arranged to create one image. In the exhibit it dominates an entire wall, and with good reason. There is an enormous amount of philosophy and tradition that motivates Chu and it’s shown with great vitality in this image.
Plumes of smoke rise into the air, an apocalyptic image but a beautiful one. For this piece Chu found inspiration in the Ying Yang symbol, its polarity, male and female, the balance of cause and effect. The piece contains what looks like smoke signals or a mushroom cloud caused by an apocalyptic bomb. As Chu explains, the mushroom cloud is a symbol of destruction, balanced with the tree, a symbol of life.
As Chu completes his MFA at the University of Utah this year he says he has not thought too much about the future, preferring to concentrateon “defining the language I’m speaking.” More than anything Chu wants people to understand his medium and realize “the extension of the boundary of photography.” This hope is realized through the images in his latest exhibit.
Fortunately for us we will be seeing more of Chu. He acknowledges that this is the first of many shows he hopes to participate in.
“I just barely got into the art scene; I have a long way to go. And I will keep going.”
Dale Thompson has a B.A. in Liberal Arts from The Evergreen State College and an Masters degree in communications from Westminster College. Her writing career includes work for a local theatre, journalism in Park City, and freelance contributions for various nonprofit organizations.