In 2008, I was passing through Sydney for a couple of days, and decided to visit the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the city’s major art museum. It was a Wednesday evening, the one day of the week when the museum stayed open late.
What I found when I arrived there was stunning. One of the biggest crowds I had ever seen at a museum was queuing up, in a line that snaked down a long hallway and up a level of stairs. What is everyone waiting to see? I wondered.
The crowds were there, I eventually discovered, for a painting by Vincent Fantauzzo, a young artist from Melbourne.
Fantauzzo’s painting was entered in competition for the Archibald Prize, Australia’s most prestigious art competition for portraiture. The artist had painted his friend, actor Heath Ledger, in a haunting triple image. Shortly after Fantauzzo finished the painting, Ledger died of an accidental overdose in New York City, and the painting became a sensation.
“The whole experience is kind of surreal,” said Melbourne-based Fantauzzo, who currently has an exhibition of his work in Ho Chi Minh City, at the Y Ngoc – Si Hoang Gallery at 135 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia in District 1. “Even [Heath] felt like it was going to do something special. ‘This painting is going to change things.’ That was one of the last things he said to me. In a lot of ways I feel like he handed me this gift.”
The painting, which shows a shirtless somber-faced almost dazed Ledger in the foreground, being whispered to by a pair of more playful versions of himself, drew record crowds to the NSW Gallery.
The Archibald Prize exhibition became one of the top 10 most visited exhibits of the year worldwide, and it put up-and-coming Fantauzzo onto the art world map for good.
“Even today I get at least an email a day about that painting, from obscure places. I get email from students in Africa that are doing an assignment on it. I guess it hit some kind of nerve. It’s a strange feeling to know that you created something that connects to people like that.”
Looking for connections
“Connect” is a word that Fantauzzo turns to frequently when talking about his art. His portraiture seems to find an eerie kind of rapport with his subject, as in the haunting Ledger painting or his equally celebrated portrait of the young Brandon Walters, the aboriginal boy who starred as Nullah in Baz Luhrmann’s film Australia.
Other images have a mysterious, open-ended quality that lures viewers in. Their dark shadows and cinematic staging is a style his friend Luhrmann, who briefly joined Fantauzzo on this trip to Vietnam, describe as “Caravaggio goes to the noir cinema.”
“Each painting is like a still from a moment, and there’s a story that goes before and after that still,” Fantauzzo said. “I like people to be able to interpret them in their own way and relate in their own way, to spark a memory from a movie or from their own experience.”
Fantauzzo’s portrait of Ledger won the Archibald People’s Choice Prize in 2008. He followed up by winning the 2009 People’s Choice Prize again for his Brandon Walters portrait, again drawing overflowing crowds.
The current exhibition in Vietnam features 26 of Fantauzzo’s paintings (not including the original Ledger portrait, however, which has become part of the permanent collection at the Art Gallery of New South Wales).
Inspired by Vietnam
This is the first stop on an Asian art tour that will travel to Bangkok in October, Singapore in November, Mumbai in December and Shanghai in February next year.
It was a Vietnamese gallery owner in Hong Kong, Donna PhuocNguyen, who convinced Fantauzzo to first come and check out Vietnam a couple of months ago. He was instantly struck. “As soon as I got here, I was kind of taken by it,” Fantauzzo said.
“Just the first drive from the airport was so exciting. I found it very energetic and honest, I found the people very real. So we started to strategize about how we could come back and have an exhibition.”
The question of how to bring his work to a larger audience was something that had already been on Fantauzzo's mind. “You have an exhibition - it opens, closes, and nobody else sees the work," he said. "So we tried to come up with an idea where we could show the work in a whole lot of different places. I can't make enough work to show everywhere I'd like to go, so why not tour? Once we decided that, Vietnam was the place I personally wanted to come and check out the most.”
Baz Luhrmann, the Australian director of celebrated films Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge, said he too was immediately taken by the energy of Vietnam: “I thought, 'Mm, I haven’t felt that before.' It’s increasingly hard to have that experience. So much of the world looks the same now, but Vietnam is still off the radar enough to be very interesting.”
Fantauzzo said he’s finding Vietnam an inspiration. He wants to come back and do “Thirty Portraits in Thirty Days,” a project he recently completed in Hong Kong. “I’m also carrying a camera everywhere in Vietnam and hope I can create a series of works based on my experiences here,” he said. “There’s so many things I want to do - I don’t know where to start.”
As Fantauzzo talks, you can almost see the wheels turning behind his eyes.
“I have so many ideas I can’t sleep at night,” he said.
Vincent Fantauzzo’s Asia Tour 2009 runs to September 6th at Y Ngoc – Si Hoang Gallery, 135 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City.
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