Artist Profile: Chính Lê: Messages in Silk

Down by the waterfall

Chính Lê touches the simply framed silk paintings hanging in his studio and invites me to do the same. I reach out a timid hand and lay a finger on the uncovered fabric. I feel wrong. One should not touch Art.

The wrongness I feel doesn’t have anything to do with the paintings. There’s a wistful beauty in Lê’s silk paintings—a balance of melancholy and joy in the scenes of people and water.

But despite their seeming delicacy, the paintings are as sturdy as a scarf made for practical use. Their tactile and textile nature are important to Lê. He doesn’t make full-size prints of his work because they wouldn’t be silk paintings anymore; they’d lose their textile touch.

Touch is probably not at the forefront of many painters’ minds. Silk painting differs from oil or watercolor painting in other key ways as well. For one, it’s done with dye instead of strict paint.

The technique Lê uses is called Serti. It’s a French technique where dye-resistant resin lines (gutta) are drawn on silk before being filled in with dyes.

“It’s different from other painting methods,” Lê said. “Once you have the gutta line, when you have the dye on the silk, it’s very difficult to change that. With oil and watercolor and acrylic you can put layers and layers. This one, once you’ve done the first few steps it’s rather unforgiving.”

Despite its unforgiving nature, Lê finds the technique and execution joyful.

“I don’t demand perfection and I don’t have a preconceived sense of what the final product should be,” he said. “There are times of frustration if you make a big mistake, but if you allow some sense of serendipity then it’s not hard.”

He finds the hardest part is getting his original message across.

“How do I transmit that message to other people without being overwhelming, without being judgmental, with leaving them a little bit of space to throw in their own interpretation?”

Lê’s messages focus on people doing ordinary things.

 “While working in my native country, Viêt Nam, I sketched scenes of people in their daily life,” he said. “I fill in the pages of their stories with bright colors as to shade away the darkness of their poverty and endless struggle to survive.”

Lê was born in Viêt Nam and has no formal art education. He’s a retired physician who moved to Corvallis with his wife, Jeri, in 2004.

Jeri is also an artist, and is responsible for Lê’s discovery of silk painting. Around 1995, she threw a slumber party for some of her friends. One of those friends was a silk painter and demonstrated the technique—that’s when Lê got into it.

Lê shows his paintings in Corvallis and Newport at local venues, businesses, and restaurants. He also sells them online (http://www.le-mail.org) and at local events like the Clothesline Sale.

“I don’t display them at for-profit galleries. I don’t consider myself a professional artist,” said Lê.

Lê’s paintings are now on view at the Sybaris Bistro in Albany and at La Salle’s The Many Faces of Africa exhibit until Wednesday, March 27.

by Lana Jones

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