Our existence seems to be governed by dualism, a concept that explains two opposing forces are intertwined with our being. There will always be an equal and opposite reaction to every single thing, and we have to see and experience the two opposing powers to determine which one matters more. To understand what light is, for example, we have to first understand darkness.
This concept of two-sidedness is employed by Lập Phương and Trịnh Cẩm Nhi through their reflection on everyday life and further developed in their artistic practice. The relationship between philosophical contemplation and reality is the central focus: both share a view of that in the devastation of daily lives, lies an opportunity to create and yield a strong sense of identity.
Flower but not a Flower
A common language in both Phương and Nhi’s works is that of a love for and reflection on nature. With her “The Wings” series, Lập Phương showcases her sensibility for a wide range of materials.
This series offers insight into where she began her career, with works in iron, in comparison with how she manifested new energy with her latter works in glass, a delicate medium that require much restraint. Here, dualism is present, but more evolved, just like her as an artist. For these works, she challenged herself with different materials and forms.
For Phương, Yin and Yang are central in the minimal and delicate presentation of these works, inviting a new perspective for audiences to encounter her practice.
Contrasting with her iron works in 2013, which obstruct light and created a shadow effect, her glass works allow us to formulate a different gaze into the soul of the artist. Still the very same Phương, but somehow completely transformed.
Iron is dense and full of intensity, while glass is fragile, but the artist’s precision with regard to material remains firm, with much sophistication. To reach this new path, Phương often mentioned how she has to “deny herself to develop a new self,” in order to expand the horizon in her practice.
With “Epiphyllum” (Quỳnh), by naming her works after a flower dubbed as “Queen of the Night,” Phương pays tribute to a beautiful creation of Mother Earth. Both works in this series are comprised of separate modules that have been curved.
The modules are joined in the center, forming a balanced unit that represents fragments of contemplation within Phương, offering a new perspective to us when looking at “Quỳnh”, and also when we look at Lập Phương, an artist that so known to challenge herself in a masculine area of making art. At this stage of her practice, Phương demonstrates how it is a revelation to be in polarity with masculinity and femininity, in developing her sense of artistry.
And just like Lập Phương, Cẩm Nhi’s work and identity evolves over time. In a world where artists are constantly challenged to make a roaring stance for themselves as they are competing with AI technologies, Nhi sticks firmly to her roots. From a family with her grandfather, Trịnh Hữu Ngọc, who many praised as the “Claude Monet of Việt Nam,”she simply eases into being an artist who inherited such great pride.
Her drawings have always been centered on particular botanical motifs combined with the human body. While her first solo exhibition show, “Garden of Unknowing,” was marked by flamboyant colors, we are captivated by the maze of Nhi’s quietly determined thoughts in this new show.
Now, her brushstrokes are more subtle, fading but also more articulate, requiring the audience to bring a focused gaze in order to capture every detail of her paintings. Nhi draws the viewers on different paths in her paintings and the sensations encountered are quite hard to name because ‘softness’ can’t quite capture the range of feelings that her paintings evoke. These emotions range from melancholy, intimacy, loneliness, and softness to, surprisingly, buoyancy.
Often citing Georgia O'Keeffe and Hilma af Klint as influences on her practices, Cẩm Nhi reflects on her admiration for nature and encourages us to use a semiotic approach when enjoying her paintings. Cẩm Nhi paints her flowers not just as a flower, but she conveys all the experiences that manifest the depth of her feelings with such a subject.
From the chessboard emerges a flower imbued with the curves of the human body; in works such as “Day, Night”, “Nostalgia” to “See you on the other side”, we see how Nhi doesn’t attempt to separate the objective traits of the object from her abstract thoughts. Instead, she creates harmonious paintings, merging the physical beings with her philosophical contemplation.
One might argue that she does so by using a strict gridding system in her works. But when we observe closely, within these boxes, the blurred stroke that she applies sends us into a faded reality that can be a realization, a revelation. Underneath the solid structure, Nhi allows to let herself to flow in the realm of the vast and intriguing world that she is creating.
For her, the fundamental opposites, like darkness and light, good and bad, life and death, co-exist in one single reality, and we need both elements to form a complete painting, and that is the world of Cẩm Nhi, as a person and an artist.
Art is the masterpiece of labor
The poetic yet most simplified knot between the duo is the act of labor.
Lập Phương champions the notion of labor, especially in the hardship and emptiness that she encounters. Her series “Triangle” and “Uterus” symbolize the versatility of her practices. In her “Triangle” series, all the works are large in size, with her intention for them not to just be presented in the space, but for them to dramatically claim the space too.
Meanwhile, “Uterus,” a painting on silk, represents a side of Phương that is surprisingly completely opposite to the visual aesthetic of everything she ever does. Two such opposite parts that made one unique Lập Phương can’t be separated or categorized.
For Nhi, the teaching of her beloved father Trịnh Tú has gifted her the strict discipline that she applies to her practices. In moments of difficulty, she follows her instinct to paint in a ritualistic manner, to gain self-control, and to offer herself stillness and concentration.
The arranged grid in half, four squares, or in multiple boxes all illustrate connected fragments of thoughts that perhaps perplexed her at one time. She once said, “As time goes by, I realized that my creative process doesn’t necessarily have to just be in the timeframe when I am creating a painting, as I realized that it is a continuous process with all my daily life experiences. As this became my new mindset, I feel more at ease with my practice.”
For that, both Phương and Nhi have developed their patience and endurance to perfect their crafts. They have consistently given us a complete portrait, not only illustrating their emotions but also their aesthetics and energy. And they will forever be changing and manifesting as they honor to live openly with the apparent paradoxical unity.