Although they burst with pastel colors and showcase gleeful revelers on vacation, the beach scenes by artist Alex Nguyen-Vo unsettle more than they soothe. Representing snapshots from a fictional nudist colony of his invention, his paintings examine the tourist resorts of Southeast Asia as pockets in post-colonial countries that reproduce colonial power structures. These enclosed sections of seasides serve as sunny stages where foreigners’ unchecked desires are on full view, their bodies usurping control of the landscape.
Nguyen-Vo’s solo exhibition at Deli Gallery, cheekily titled Colonial Beach, features 11 works. The series emerged from his 2011 travels to Vietnam, which marked the Vietnamese-American artist’s first-ever trip to the country to visit his relatives. Faced with a sense of in-betweenness, as an outsider exploring his country of descent, he was especially attuned to the relationship between locals and foreigners — largely Westerners — and their marked difference of conduct in a country whose citizens regularly face threats to basic rights.
Colonial Beach represents the countless luxury resorts that dot not only the coasts of Vietnam, but of many other Southeast Asian countries that have experienced mass tourism in the last few decades, from Singapore to the Philippines. In these privatized and highly commercialized spaces, uninhibited leisure reigns, but only for the enjoyment of foreigners. In Nguyen-Vo’s paintings, pink-haired and pink-skinned figures smile, under a blazing sun, from the railing of what could be a cruise ship or a hotel balcony; pasty individuals, still clearly disoriented from late-night revelry, stumble around in the morning light; a group of passive beachgoers smoke and drink as they witness a fight in the distance. The artist turns tourists’ gazes back onto them to highlight their lawlessness; their nudity underscores their lack of inhibition but also alludes to colonial, Western constructs of far-off islands as wild, exotic destinations that offer escape from civilization.
The locals, meanwhile, are deliberately excluded in Nguyen-Vo’s paintings. When they do appear, as in one painting centered on a blonde sunbather, they wander in the background as a small unit of faceless, cryptic beings — the “other” in their own land. In the real world, locals are often in similar positions, as dutiful members of staff who remain along the fringes of these resorts. Nguyen-Vo makes their invisibility and inferiority apparent in one tiny, dark scene that departs from the much larger, candy-colored beach views of tourists: centered on an alleyway of murky colors, a single resort worker stumbles out of a dive bar and falls; his abstracted figure disappears into thick daubs of neon lights and is nearly indistinguishable from those watery swirls. Next to the small painting hang two neon sculptures of wilted palm trees that illuminate the gallery, turning it into a dismal extension of this not-so-sunny scene.
Nguyen-Vo’s use of thick, heavy paint, rendered in impressionist strokes like swirls of frosting, is intended as a pointed adoption of the techniques favored by artists of the country that colonized Indochina — techniques he noticed still influence Vietnamese art-making, mimicked by local craftsmen in paintings they sell as souvenirs. Two of his works call out the infamous travels of one French post-Impressionist, Paul Gauguin, who would be right at home on Nguyen-Vo’s colonial beach. Portraits of a blonde “Stacy” and a dark-skinned “Inés” posing as naked odalisques beneath palm trees and in a hotel room immediately recall Gauguin’s portraits of nude French Polynesian girls, with whom the artist forged questionable relationships as he sought a new, idyllic life far away from France. These fictional characters embody the mythology and romance that foreigners naively assign to distant landscapes and their inhabitants.
Such images that reflect idealized projections of distant places can still be found today, in travel brochures and other promotional material. Certain details and figures in the Colonial Beach paintings were actually drawn from photographs Nguyen-Vo found on tourism blogs and forums, as well as on travelers’ Instagram feeds. The resulting works blur distinctions between what exactly is real and what is imagined. We, too, are outsiders on “Colonial Beach,” and Nguyen-Vo makes us aware of our own desires to seek the authentic — or what we believe to be authentic — even in a place we know is ultimately constructed.