Nguyen Cam and His Poetics of Mixed Media

Rosenberg & Co.
Mar 27, 2020 5:44PM

The work of Nguyen Cam is saturated: earthy color and texture are densely layered onto canvas in emotive formations that defy categorization. Cardboard, recycled rice sacks, glue, sand, and oil paint combine in unlikely shapes, the material rising from the canvas in alternating grit and sheen. Somehow, this density does not create a visual heaviness—worked into the layers are careful expanses of negative space, and the often-simple forms seem to levitate with animate intensity. Cam’s saturation manifests calm power, and the surprising balance of color, figure, and material feels both ancient and highly contemporary. Works such as Untitled II and Blue Night Triptych can be placed in conversation with young mixed media artists such as Carmen Argote and Brian Belott, who combine everyday, culturally-significant objects into innovative assemblages. Other works such as Imprints 2, 5, and 8 recall traditional practices of calligraphy, even as they shun convention. While Cam trained as a figurative artist, he now disregards formal training: “I refuse to learn the calligraphic art and its codified rules,” he says: “knowledge would stop my hand.”

Blue Night, Red Earth: The Work of Nguyen Cam opened February 24, 2020 at Rosenberg & Co.

Created within the last two decades, the works included in Blue Night, Red Earth: The Work of Nguyen Cam exemplify the mature style Cam has found after a lifetime of experimentation. Born in 1944 in Haiphong, one hundred kilometers from Hanoi, Cam grew up in a family supportive of the arts: the head of his father’s household had been a painter, and his mother, educated in Confucian philosophy, belonged to the bourgeoisie. A few months after Cam was born, however, the house that his architect father had designed was destroyed by bombshells. As the French and Japanese fought destructively for control of Indochina during WWII, Cam’s early years fluctuated between degrees of precarity due to the colonialist conflict. His family relocated to Saigon after the 1954 Geneva agreement, and in 1958, they were forced to emigrate to Laos.

To supplement his father’s income, Cam began selling drawings and paintings in French cafés, and he quickly gained steady patronage. The works from this period drew from the Impressionists—Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, and particularly Paul Gauguin—but Cam soon realized the intellectual limits of this profitable form of art. He studied, read critical reviews of Marc Chagall, Joan Miró, Bernard Buffet, and other artists in Paris, and kept up with the burgeoning scene in Vietnam: Philippe Franchini had recently opened the Dolce Vita gallery in Saigon, showing emerging figures such as Nguyen Trung. Cam’s work began to attract attention in Laos, and thanks to the patronage of an American diplomat and the subsequent support of the Lao Red Cross, he had the opportunity to exhibit in Bangkok. Even as his success in Vientiane grew, however, Cam recognized that Laos lacked the resources that would enable him to grow as an artist. In 1969, Cam applied to l'Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He was accepted, and the Bangkok exhibition supplied him the necessary funds to travel to France.

“I am trying to achieve a sort of melting pot between the two cultures of mine—and I insist on the plural aspect—which is up to the viewer to decipher. I definitely refuse to be singled out as Vietnamese. I can work anywhere.” —Nguyen Cam

Blue Night, Red Earth at Rosenberg & Co.

In Paris, Cam quickly caught up on the developments and machinations of European art. Coming from his studies in Impressionism, he was drawn to the historical range of figurative painting. “As everything was new to me,” Cam said of this time, “I enjoyed almost everything: Ingres and de la Tour for their almost perfect rendering, de Chirico for his daydream atmosphere, not to mention so many others. . . . Yet I was not able to get into the abstract approach of the seventies. Had I been able to do so, I would have certainly studied with Singier rather than with Chapelain-Midy.” His early work was markedly apolitical;his politics only became overt with his 1973 participation in Cris et couleurs, an exhibition at the Espace Cardin in Paris in support of the Vietnamese boat people. During his four years at l'Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Cam participated in the Salon d’Automne, the Société des Artistes Français, and was awarded the Prix de l'Académie des Beaux-Arts.

Although Cam had considered returning to Vietnam, it became impossible in 1975: the VietCong captured Saigon, and Cam’s support of the boat people precluded his reentry into the country. So Cam stayed, living in the south of France and honing his skills in figuration, and in 1976, France granted him citizenship. Shortly after, Cam had his first solo exhibition in Paris at the Hélène Appel gallery, followed by shows at Sala d’Art Madie in 1978, and La Sensitive gallery in 1981 and 1983. In 1987, Cam left the countryside and returned to Paris; in his smaller urban studio, he finally began dismantling his practice of figuration

Nguyen Cam, Vers le soleil, 2019, Rosenberg & Co.

During these years, the Communist government banned abstraction and surrealism, and artists were expected exclusively to produce work that served a political purpose. However, the 1986 initiation of economic reforms under Doi Moi relaxed this censorship. Strikingly, Nguyen Cam left figurative painting all together in 1990—the same year the Vietnamese government followed the lead of Communist China and revoked many of the artistic freedoms that Doi Moi had fostered. Censorship again prevailed, and political imprisonments escalated—including that of Dang Hai Son, an art dealer.

Meanwhile, in France, Cam worked tenaciously to refine his new abstract practice. He began incorporating collage and mixed media into the works almost immediately, and many of the materials have remained in use: rice paper, sand, adhesive. Galerie Bellint, the gallery of André Lanskoy, Camille Bryen, and Michel Humair, decided to show Cam’s new abstract works and the exhibition gained traction. In an interview from the time, Cam explained his dramatic change in style, speaking in a characteristic third person: “He had foreseen the necessity of breaking away from representing the body without abandoning its presence. Or, perhaps one should say, its pregnancy . . . Everything happens as if the territory of the verb frames that of thought, more neutral, emancipated from the visible.”

Nguyen Cam, The Ocean, 2005, Rosenberg & Co.

In 1994, after the Vietnamese government had again loosened its cultural policies, the Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Association invited Cam to Saigon to exhibit his work. Cam was fifty years old—it had been thirty-five years since he had left Vietnam as a refugee—and though he returned to the country with curiosity and fear, the exhibition was a success. Crucially, however, this return to Vietnam honed Cam’s material and palette. During the installation of the show, he was struck by the material used for wrapping—thick, rough, and heavily-patched cloth that had originally been used by UNESCO and had since been recycled into art handling supplies. Immediately, Cam saw it as a potential medium. He set up a temporary studio and began cutting, patching, and adding sand from the Phan Thiet beach, and glue to roughen the fabric even further. He did away with frames and stretchers, favoring accidents, quickness, and un-aestheticized intuition. “I felt the material would set me free from too elaborate of a composition process and allow emotion to play its part,” Cam said of this discovery. “I shifted from the filter of elaborated thinking to spontaneity. You can imagine how excited I was before such a prospect. The way I am working today is rooted there.” Cam’s return solidified and deepened his nascent abstract practice, and more exhibitions in Vietnam followed: Red River Gallery in 1995, Saigon Gallery in 1996, and Nam Gallery in 1997.

Upon the invitation of the French Embassy, Cam began a contemporary art workshop in Hanoi, where he became close with Olivier Debré, who was working on a project for the Hanoi Opera. Commissions and exhibitions became steady, but Cam eventually returned to live in France, saying, “Living [in Vietnam] helped me understand who I am, but it also became clear that I am at home in France. This is where my friends are, this is where I learned and where I built.”

Nguyen Cam, Au Zénith, 2016, Rosenberg & Co.

One can identify three distinct periods in Nguyen Cam’s international career: his figurative period of the sixties in Vietnam and Laos, and the seventies and eighties in Paris; then, an initial exploration into abstraction, in which Cam’s study of Tachisme is evident; and finally, the style that arose out of his return to Vietnam, which the critic Arnault Tran named a “victory over formalism.” This “victory”—over the rules of first figuration, and then geometric abstraction— also refers to a profound release: Cam stopped planning his work, and allowed himself to be entirely guided by intuition.

The relationship Cam had with Debré illuminates the intuitive process of his work. While both artists are inspired by landscapes and urban topographies, Debré’s work is concerned with the systematic use of symbolism and the possibility of universal signs; Cam, however, disregards any notions of formal signs or concepts. “I respond to an interior impulse, and I cannot impose interpretations,” he says. The titles of Cam’s work provide insight into the impulses, and the material and compositional qualities of each work are rich with suggestion.

In As time goes by #7, cloth, corrugated cardboard, and a ginkgo leaf convene in the exact center of the square canvas. Compositionally halving the canvas on the horizontal plane, Cam also creates a distinct grid—the lower half of the work is split into quadrants, but also employs the rule of thirds in its placement of the base-like structure. This base—perhaps serving as a plinth, or altar—occurs in many of Cam’s works. Its form is emphasized by rough, painted textile, and in light of its texture and positioning, the base seems to occupy a terrestrial plane that differs markedly from the calligraphic stripes painted above the central horizon line. “There is no need to decipher anything,” Cam says of his work. While Cam may deny formal symbolism, the ginkgo leaf is a fascinating recurring motif and he utilizes its potential meaning: during a trip to Hiroshima, Cam learned that the ginkgo was the first tree to grow back after the atomic bomb. “Since then,” he says, “I have considered the ginkgo to be the symbol of eternity. Time passes but eternity remains forever, like art.”

Nguyen Cam, As time goes by #7, 2007, Rosenberg & Co.

Cam’s later body of work is unlike that of his Vietnamese contemporaries, who have largely focused on figurative painting and, more recently, installation and performance. Despite his consistent use of identifiably Vietnamese materials and colors, Nguyen Cam’s work in some ways has more in common with the mixed media paintings of Anselm Kiefer than with the contemporary figurative work of most artists working in Hanoi. For decades, Keifer has grappled with post-World War II German identity, confronting his country’s socio-political history by interrogating how collective memory is culturally constructed. Drawing his themes from Germany’s topography, architecture, mythology, and visual art traditions, Keifer incorporates found materials from nature onto his canvases, including dried flowers, ash, glass, sand, and straw, radicalizing the tradition of landscape painting as an allegory for the human condition. With politically charged symbols in mournful colors that evoke charred, desolate countryside, his politically provocative works build on the tradition of Joseph Beuys and the German Neo-Expressionists, implicating the native forces that established a legacy of nationalist violence and historical trauma. Some of Kiefer’s most frequently used materials, particularly straw and dried flowers, represent seemingly contradictory states—detritus and renewal, death and energy—and seem to mirror Cam’s material experimentations using ginkgo leaves and cardboard, as well as his color selection. Unlike Kiefer, however, Cam does not aim to excavate a nation’s collective trauma; rather, he focuses on constructing the individual experience of memory, exile, and return. Cam states that, “[b]ringing concepts to the fore is not part of my Asian culture. Feeling, emotion, and impulse belong to my vocabulary.” He continues: “Although I do not mind talking about intuition or sentiment, and I know it does not play in favor of the recognition of my work, it does however reflect my own and proper reality. I respond to an interior impulse, though I cannot impose interpretations.”

Nguyen Cam, Untitled IV, 2006, Rosenberg

While Cam’s material experimentation situates his body of work in a global contemporary art context and conveys particular aspects of the experience of memory, his sense of color brings his predominant themes of time, water, and earth into focus. The colors that characterize the works in Blue Night, Red Earth reflect Cam’s commitment to his personal experience. Rather than bowing to stereotype or expectation, Cam forged his own aesthetic path: “A foreign journalist found it amazing I should not use green, which was to him emblematic of Vietnam.”

The transcendent blues in Blue Night Triptych and The Ocean draw the viewer into a state of meditative contemplation, and gesture back through time toward Cam’s upbringing in the port city of Haiphong: “In my work, water is predominant and responds to a necessity”. The blues of the night sky and of water are complemented by vibrant, compositionally nuanced use of reds. Of his early attraction to red in the 1990s, Cam says, “To me, red meant energy. It also referred to the brown and ochre hues which were characteristic of the working-class districts. Above all I made the choice of red for its natural proximity to the rice bag cloth.” In concert with one another, the blues function as metaphor for the fluid passage of time, while the reds and browns ground the works, placing them in congress with nature’s elements.

Nguyen Cam, Blue Night Trp

Nguyen Cam’s integration of organic and agricultural material with calligraphic script form an abstract visual language that is unmistakably his own. Cam occupies a unique place as an international visionary of Vietnamese and European contemporary art. With a distinct aesthetic identity forged through a fusion of history, intuition, and spontaneity, the works in Blue Night, Red Earth reflect Nguyen Cam’s exceptional journey through memory toward eternity.

Blue Night, Red E

Works cited:

Taylor, Nora. Painters in Hanoi: An Ethnography of Vietnamese Art. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2004.

Tran, Arnault. “Nguyen Cam, des blocs de silence.” Cimaise no. 231-32 (September-October 1994).

Tran, Arnault. Nguyen Cam; From Hanoi to Paris: A Painter’s Odyssey. Paris: Alternatives, 2004.

Human Rights Watch. “Human Rights Watch World Report 1990 - Vietnam”, January 1, 1991, available at: [accessed January 11, 2020]

Rosenberg & Co.