I first met Brian Doan at Long Beach City College two years ago in his photography class “Alternative Processes.” Due to time restraints I considered dropping the class, and that thought grew once I heard Brian speak. Brian has a thick Vietnamese accent, which at times is difficult to understand. However, there was something in his demeanor that compelled me to overcome the communication barrier. Perhaps the difficulty I had understanding him forced me to concentrate more on his manner because I sensed a keen awareness of someone who has experienced the extremities of life.
Since August the Oceanside Museum of Fine Art is Brian’s work in its current exhibit Facing West / Looking East. The exhibit features artists whose works are the reflection of the duality of their experiences of both Asian and California cultures and their affects upon them. Via a combination of photo illustration, sculpture, and multi-media Brian’s work is an expression of his life - being a refugee of a communist country and a Vietnamese American.
Fighting for the survival of the photography program at Long Beach City College, the duties of being a single parent, the recent death of his father, and the demands of being a teacher and an administrator, all the while trying to find time and space to create more work make for challenging times. But this is Brian’s life, and as much as he would love nothing more than to focus on making art I sense he thrives on this demanding and chaotic existence. And, through it all he will use what he’s now enduring as a source to create more art.
For a little over an hour Brian and I talked about his life in Viet Nam, becoming an American, his relationship with his father, his mentors Nick Nixon and Abelardo Morell, and his development as an artist. I learned that though he intends to move beyond the two dimensions of the photographic image photography is and will continue to be the basis of his work. I was most interested in learning how the photographer developed into a conceptual artist. He told me studying philosophy in graduate school helped him to become cognizant of his own beliefs and that the act of making a photograph was an expression of self. Nick Nixon told him “your life will teach you how to make your art.” Having been raised in a war-torn communist country, then as a young man unable to speak English immigrating to sunny, laid back, capitalistic Southern California, Brian was destined to create work that explored the contrast between Vietnamese and American culture and his existence within those two worlds.
During an exhibit in 2008 at the Vietnamese American Art Center in Little Saigon Brian learned a difficult lesson. His form of expression outraged many in the Viet Nam community because one of his portraits contained symbols of communist Viet Nam. His feelings were ambivalent. As an artist he drew a certain satisfaction that his work had provoked a strong reaction, however it wounded him to realize that the unintended consequences of his work had caused his family and community so much pain. Yet, rather than withdraw from the source of this resentment, in 2010 with the aide of a Fulbright Grant, he returned to Viet Nam to delve deeper into the roots of this conflict.
One piece that stands out at the Oceanside exhibit is the multi-media piece “White Christmas.” The work is autobiographical. It’s a haunting impression of the day that a four-year old boy’s world was turned up side down. Small toy figures represent Brian and his fleeing family, his father, and the helicopter that would separate them for ten years. All of this lies atop of a TV displaying only static, but from it emanates the familiar American Christmas song “White Christmas.” That melody warned the South Vietnamese that the North had invaded Saigon and for those fortunate enough to have the connections it was time to get out. For those without that ticket out it was time to prepare for all that they had feared.