Le Doi paints colorful tableaux, yet there is an undeniable sadness in them. His subjects are most often face to face with solitude. Nude figures are painted from the back, their heads usually buried into a fluid landscape that suggests a desert of red earth.
In one, called Dreamscape, the tilted head is definitely that of a woman in grief. The pose is almost cliche, yet the effect is neither sentimental nor precious, even with the abandoned letter at the nude's side.
His well-known painting, Afternoon Market in the Highlands, does not contain the chaotic activities of a market. Only two round trays of fish, arranged to look like stars, tell us this is a place of common activities. Le Doi uses masses of bright orange, white and deep blue to block out his canvas, allowing the eye to focus on the figures of five Vietnamese women from the countryside. Draping the lonesome figures in traditional raincoats with few details, the artist conveys a retreat from the elements, and perhaps from the surroundings.
The five figures do not face each other. No one is engaged in the normal activities of a market, and even the figure examining the fish appears to be waiting for something to happen, rather than making a choice for dinner. The figures' bent heads and drawn shoulders dramatically capture a moment full of angst.
Afternoon Market in the Highlands succeeds as a tableau precisely because of the odd juxtaposition of a market scene devoid of the expected chaos, and the languid feel of the figures seemingly awaiting the passing of an uncertain moment.
Perhaps Le Doi's self-professed love for Dali and Max Ernst explains the unreal figures in A Woman Rejected and The Itinerant Vendor. The former has five eyes looking directly out from the painting while she strikes a lonely pose down a barren street. The blues and lavender hues of the backgrounds are to convey night and darkness. But Le Doi has included them in his palette with skill, and the resulting coldness provides a contrast with the woman's warm brown tones.
The Itinerant Vendor sports a gray traditional tunic and white trousers. Again, a background of orange-red suggests a desert, solitude. A single house in a corner. The man takes his steps alone under a gray sky, but he is not completely detached from other people.
Writing about The Itinerant Vendor in Vietnam's Images magazine (Sept. '92), the critics Tran Ngoc and Vu Cong asked, "Who is he?...Does he embody the many facets of life? What is he selling? Dramatic masks: the good, the evil, and the innocent prince...a choice is forced upon us: to each his own mask."
A mass of golden color comes alive in Le Doi's Afternoon on Village Road. To the critics, "it is the golden color of wheat, spread magically into the sky...the color of happiness. But Doi does not stop there. His heart, his mind...still reach for a certain anxiety. Pure beauty is only a dream..."
Le Doi began painting in 1972. He studied with Vinh Phoi, the well known professor at the School of Fine Arts in Hue, central Vietnam, where Le Doi's familial roots are. He now lives in Danang and has held regular exhibits there and in nearby Hoi An since 1990. A series of exhibitions followed in 1993 and 1994 in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, making Doi among the most well-known artists from central Vietnam.
It is easy to understand why Le Doi is popular with European collectors. His oil paintings stand out among the Hoi An landscapes. While others are adequate renderings of the ancient Chinese-style row houses that mark the streets of Hoi An, Le Doi's bright color schemes convey the new-found excitement of the town. At the same time, there is a mournful tone that seems to lament the changes brought to the town by the arrival of the tourists of the last few years.
Le Doi admits that the tourists have helped. "The local economy is changing," he says. "And we are learning about the outside world. But I am developing my own style, independent of the taste of tourists."
"Hanoi is the cradle of Vietnamese culture," adds Doi. "In Saigon, there is great development in the arts. But the best painters are still those who have moved south from Hanoi."
The artist, who plans to stay put in central Vietnam with his wife and two children, would like to try themes that have been allowed in Vietnam only in the recent years of openness. "I respect the traditional style of the old schools from the North," he says. "But there is in radicalism something helpful. And with new means of communications, Vietnamese artists are catching up with the outside world. Central Vietnam is still limited in terms of outside contacts. But an artist must dream of horizons far away."
Published on 10/1/95