Asian Accents: This article is part of an ongoing series that explores the diverse range of artistic influences from Asia in the arts and culture of Southern California.
On August 31, 2010, the day President Obama had promised U.S. troops would finally leave Iraq, Vietnamese American artist Trang T. Lê completed her painting entitled "111,978," a work that took her over four years to complete. The painting depicts a 56-foot long ghostly blue wave that stretches its threadlike fingers across seven horizontal canvases. The hundreds of strands of the wave are built up from a total of 111,978 tiny painted spirals, each representing the death of a soldier or civilian in Iraq since the US-led coalition invaded the country in 2003.
As someone who had decades before fled war-ravaged Vietnam with her family, Lê understands the devastation of war and also that victims from both sides are often forgotten. When she embarked on the project, she wanted to record and remembered all lives that were lost. As she painted each circle, she thought of the individual who had died. The process was at times deeply painful and exhausting, but the intense repetition of a single form was also highly meditative, and when she finally completed this intricate wave of souls, she found herself healing from the pain of not only the Iraq War but also from the war of her childhood in Vietnam.
Lê, who now lives and works in Huntington Beach, has also used her art to explore her own emotional and personal challenges. In her new series of works entitled "Threads," on view at the Ruth Bachofner Gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica, Lê continues the repetitive mark-making that has been a consistent feature of her painting since she completed her MFA at Claremont Graduate University. In these works, instead of building up an image out of hundreds of tiny circles, she works with a single thread and tracks it back and forth across the canvas, simultaneously unraveling and weaving together delicate strands of vibrant color. For Lê, the images represent the unraveling she recently experienced in several areas of her emotional life and her attempt to reconstruct her sense of self through her art. She describes the process in a poem she wrote to accompany the series:
"All I've got is this thread to hold on I don't want to fall, holding on to it With a paint brush, painting day by day... Hoping with time, it will pass Then it takes me to the colorful night after the rain."
In the series, the sense of emotional unraveling is represented most literally in her three-dimensional works, in which she uses cotton threads to construct an image. For the diptych "Desert Skies - Horizons," Le hammered a row of nails along the left and right edges of two vertical wooden boards and then looped multicolored strands of string back and forth across each of the surfaces to connect the nails and form gentle gradations of color that evoke a warm, soothing sunset. Though the process of wrapping threads around the nails might seem mechanical and monotonous, the resulting image has the organic fluidity of a painting. Indeed, seen from a distance the color gradations seem to have been achieved by a brush.
Most of the works in the "Threads" series are painted. With a steady, controlled brush, Lê delicately guides a single strand of thread from one edge of the canvas to the other, following the same motion as when she threaded the nails. As it reaches the far edge, the painted thread turns and starts its path back to the other side, over and over again. Curiously, while the images constructed with actual threads have the look of abstract paintings, the painted images which make up most of the series often resemble bundles of silk threads or heavily worn cloth. Many of the thin lines run parallel across the composition, but in places they stray to the left or right, leaving gaps reminiscent of a stretched-out section of loosely woven gauze. In the luminous painting "Day 5," the irregularly grouped blue lines resemble bundles of freshly dyed indigo threads being prepared to be woven on a loom.
As with her war victims' memorial, the process of painting her "Threads" series is highly meditative for Lê. She paints her way through her pain, using a meticulous, repetitive approach to heal her wounds. "With the circles, I was able to resolve the pain of my past," she explains, "but some of my personal problems were not resolved. With this series, I'm pulling out the yarn that was wound into circles for those paintings. After a hard day, when I go into my studio and paint, I become calm." Using bright colors, reminiscent of the many dazzling hues of nature's canvas has also helped. "When I paint lines in brighter colors, it helps my day become better, brighter."
In reviews of Lê's work, the word "obsessive" has been used to describe her artistic process in both her circle paintings and her Threads series. However, this word suggests an anxious, impatient state of mind. Lê describes herself as a patient artist, and finds painting peaceful, calm and meditative. As an artist originally from a Buddhist culture, where the practice of meditation might involve writing out row upon row of religious text, chanting a single sacred phrase over and over, painting Zen circle after circle, or walking round and round a holy monument, Lê is doing what many Buddhists have done before her to attain a state of calm - focusing intently on a repetitive and meditative act in order to achieve a deeper understanding of herself.
Trang T. Lê 's work Threads is on view at the Ruth Bachofner Gallery until October 12, 2013. It can also be seen on her website. An exhibition of her works entitled "Quiet Thoughts" opens at Art Space Vincennes in Vincennes, Indiana on October 4th.