Savanhdary Vongpoothorn

In a new body of work on show at Martin Browne Contemporary, Savanhdary Vongpoothorn takes the cross-cultural vocabulary that she has been developing since the late 1990s to new, responsive, places. Over the past year, she has painted in and about loss, regeneration, and the connections to her history which sustain her.

In Fire Sutra II, 2021, two waves of light stream diagonally across the canvas. Modulations between light and dark on the whole, in this work, take on different intervals: there are the two strips of light yellow against the pink ground, the marks of Lao-Pali text puncturing these yellow fields, lines which mimic the patterns of scribbly gums, and – more quickly, and closer together – the dark marks of perforations in the canvas itself with which Vongpoothorn has been working since the late 1990s. 

The particular canvases used for Vongpoothorn’s recent work were found in her storage space in Canberra, during its COVID-19 lockdown in 2020. The soldering-iron marks of the perforations had been made by the artist’s father, who had passed away in the January of that year and had assisted Vongpoothorn in her studio for many years. There is a sense of rupture which inheres in the works, certainly: the fragmentation of the Fire Sutra text, the puncturing of the canvas, the way that the patterning and colour reflect on the bushfires in which Vongpoothorn and her family were caught in late 2019, on the South Coast of New South Wales. 

There is also, however, a feeling of illumination, regeneration, and reparation which washes over and between these gestures of loss in Vongpoothorn’s recent work. The artist cites Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence: On Awe, Wonder, and Things That Sustain You When the World Goes Dark, 2020, as a major source of fortitude during the lockdown period – which was also, of course, a period of grieving for her father and for the landscape affected by the 2019-20 fires, which she has long painted in and about. She takes Baird both figuratively and at her word in these recent paintings: working, at once, to build her cross-cultural visual vocabulary to new conjunctions and harmonies, and also in an iridescent paint. Using the material trace of what had been lost, as well as the vocabularies of her Australian and Laotian cultures, Vongpoothorn builds a suite of work which is hopeful, restorative, and deeply whole. 

In her catalogue essay for her upcoming show at Martin Browne, Vongpoothorn comments that her coupled senses of the impermanent and the dearly-held reflect ‘Buddhist ideas about the transient nature of any belonging we might have in this world of suffering and desires.’ To this, she adds that she ‘believe[s] that this perspective helps mediate between the (ongoing) history of violence done to Indigenous people and Country by settler society, and our common dreams of finding spiritual belonging in the Australian landscape.’ Here, we can see Vongpoothorn’s sustained commitment not only to exploring her relationship to her Laotian heritage and history, but also to figuring out a way of being in deep relationship with the Australian environment (including at Wedderburn, where much of her current style was developed) as somebody who has come to call it home. 

This is a body of work which metabolises both those things which are lost, and those which are sustained, working as a beacon of resilience. Vongpoothorn might be taken, in one sense, to be painting in and against ‘dark times,’ and the new lockdown around the opening of her Sydney show with Martin Browne is a reminder of the context in which the works were created. Nevertheless, they will be there in the gallery, glowing. 

Grounded and Glowing
22 July – 15 August 2021
Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney

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