Symbolic power

Brian Doan’s meditations on Vietnamese history say more than they show

An earlier version of Brian Doan’s “Ideal’’ (above) sparked protests when it was exhibited in LA’s Little Saigon. An earlier version of Brian Doan’s “Ideal’’ (above) sparked protests when it was exhibited in LA’s Little Saigon.
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / December 22, 2010

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Photographer Brian Doan was 6 when Saigon fell, in 1975. His father, a South Vietnamese intelligence officer, was put in a communist prison camp. It was 10 years before the family was reunited.

In 2009, Doan, who now lives in Los Angeles, participated in an exhibit in that city’s Little Saigon about Vietnamese-American identity. The photo he showed was a version of one now up in his exhibit “They Aren’t Ugly,’’ at Gallery Kayafas. The image, “Ideal,’’ features a girl in a red tank top emblazoned with a yellow star — like the communist flag in Vietnam. There’s a bust of North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh on the table beside her, and a cellphone. She’s pretty, young, and oblivious.

The photo sparked protests by the Vietnamese community. Doan was called a communist. The exhibit was shut down. Someone broke into the closed gallery and defaced the photograph with spray paint. Doan’s father, who lives in Little Saigon, stopped speaking to him.

Doan is not a communist. He’s an artist delving into his own freighted history, in which there are many fierce allegiances and loaded symbols. The recent removal from an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery of a David Wojnarowicz video featuring a crucifix crawling with ants shows us how dear we hold our symbols. The crucifix is seen as sacred; the symbols of communism, in Doan’s case, have been vilified. All command fiery passion in which the symbols can be mistaken for what they represent. In his photographs, Doan attempts to shine a light on his culture, and perhaps particularly on belief systems that were necessarily self-protective in the midst of war, but are now rigid.

“They Aren’t Ugly’’ — a title Doan came up with after protestors in LA called his work ugly — is a moody grouping of intimate scenes conveying emotional disconnection and implied violence. “Back Home’’ shows a Vietnamese-American soldier returned from Afghanistan or Iraq, sitting glumly at a low table with a tumbler of liquor. “VC Scout Girl Game’’ depicts a blindfolded woman seated with dignity on the edge of a bed, her shirt open. She holds herself with pride, but the scene is laced with threat.

Doan’s response to protests about his photographs has been to throw himself with even more nerve into symbols of the Vietnam War. For “Being Them’’ (a separate series within the show at Kayafas), he stages infamous images from the era and inserts himself into the scenes. “Self-Portrait: Being Ho’’ has the artist in Ho Chi Minh drag. In “Self Portrait: Being Loan,’’ he reenacts Eddie Adams’s iconic photo of a South Vietnamese policeman executing a Viet Cong soldier. He diffuses the violence. The policeman doesn’t aim and shoot. Instead, the soldier holds up a cigarette, as if asking the cop for a light. The effect, in both cases, is to distance the impact, to let some air into the symbol so a viewer can begin to unpack it. Some may see this kind of work as sacrilegious. I see it as heroic.

Art in motion

Joan Brigham’s steam-powered kinetic sculptures on view at Gurari Collections are part of a lineage of steam engines that dates to those invented by Hero of Alexandria, working in the first century AD. Brigham’s sculptures need to be fired up, and they splash and hiss. She makes them with lab glass, adding graceful tendrils to utilitarian bulbs and spheres. “Maypole’’ is a bulb with glass ribbons arcing around it; when you light a lamp beneath, it whirls with remarkable speed. “Medusa,’’ a sphere with serpentine locks, does the same. Other pieces are run by electric-powered heating elements in trays of water; “Glass Grass,’’ when operating at full steam, sets a small field of green glass blades swaying.

Brigham’s captivating works are simple yet ingenious. With their whirligigs and spraying droplets, they feel like toys. But they are formally elegant. Those powered by fire glow; in the dark, they would be haunting.

Pet project

Louisa Conrad has spent the past year working at goat and sheep dairies in Vermont, and incorporating her art practices of drawing, photography, and video into her farming practices. Her show at anthony greaney has its charms: Close-up portraits of baby goats are just as sweet as portraits of any other babies. But these are declaratively romantic. They’re too adorable. The show is titled “The Workers’’ because these animals work. Conrad demonstrates what individuals they are; she seems to appreciate them as pets.

Each of three composite drawings was made in a span of eight hours. A wall drawing, “40 Workers,’’ features 40 spare portraits, one on top of the next. Lines shimmy and overlap; the effect is ghostly, an image of a goat dissolving or coalescing. We get a sense of the herd, of breeding, of animal husbandry.

There’s a gulf between loving domesticated animals and employing them. Perhaps in her farm work Conrad does both. But her exhibit moves from one to the other. She needs to explore the tension between the two. That’s where she’ll find conflict and confusion. That’s where there’s something to illuminate.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at

BRIAN DOAN: They Aren’t Ugly At: Gallery Kayafas, 450 Harrison Ave., through Jan. 15. 617-482-0411,

JOAN BRIGHAM: Automata — Energy in Motion At: Gurari Collections, 460 Harrison Ave., through Jan. 15. 617-367-9800,

LOUISA CONRAD: The Workers At: anthony greaney, 450 Harrison Ave., through Jan. 15. 617-482-0055,