Vietnam’s 13-year-old Pollock just enjoys bold colors

By Long Nguyen   January 22, 2021 | 05:01 am PT
Xeo Chu has no idea what an art prodigy is. But he knows people are calling him one.

"I do not know what it is, but I think it is a compliment, so I am happy when they call me an art prodigy," he told VnExpress International. At 13, Chu (birth name: Pho Van An), has more than 200 paintings to his credit over the last nine years.

The world has taken notice of this chubby-cheeked boy’s talent.

In 2018, he had a solo exhibition at Georges Berges Gallery in New York City, where his biggest piece, "Ha Long Bay in Cave," a 2x4.8 m painting, was sold for $150,000. That painting was specially done for his first exhibition in the U.S.

Georges Berges, owner of the gallery, is convinced that Chu is a young version of Jackson Pollock, American painter and a major figure in the abstract expressionist movement in the 1940s and 1950s.

But for Chu, who’d not known about the famous American painter until his trip to the U.S., painting is just a way he expresses his passion for "strong, bold colors." His work is not affected by any artist or movement, he says.

Chu in his studio. Photo courtesy of Xeo Chu.

Chu in his studio. Photo courtesy of Xeo Chu.

The youngest child in a family with two older brothers, Chu, picked up a brush for the first time when he was four years old. After visiting a painting class that his brothers were attending, the boy scribbled something on a paper, but the art teacher did not pay it much heed.

But the second time, he drew a portrait and the teacher was riveted.

"Looking at the painting, the teacher praised him and started to care about the four-year-old boy," said Chu’s mother, Nguyen Thi Thu Suong, who owns two art galleries in Saigon.

Just what I see

"I paint the things I see," Chu said when VnExpress International asked him about his inspiration.

He said he particularly likes natural scenes and flowers. His mother loves flowers and always displays a lot of them at home.

Shapes and the choice of colors come to him with fluid ease. A video demonstrating how he works captures the felicity with which he uses paint bottles to squeeze-spray the shapes of trees and nimbly creates flowers with splotches.

Once, during Tet (Lunar New Year) when houses in the south of Vietnam are decorated with ochna or yellow mai flowers, he decided to make a painting of the tree and its flowers as a birthday gift for his mother.

"I spent the whole afternoon finishing that painting, and now my mom hangs it in our living room," he said, adding that it is one of his most favorite works.

He also loves abstract paintings. During a trip to Canada, he saw sunlight coming through the trees full of autumn colors. He captured the beautiful moment with just colorful brushstrokes – without the trees or their leaves.

Autumn in Canada, an abstract work by Xeo Chu. Photo courtesy of Xeo Chu and George Berges Gallery.

"Autumn in Canada," an abstract work by Xeo Chu. Photo courtesy of Xeo Chu and George Berges Gallery.

The young boy is sometimes not satisfied with his work, so he keeps many of his paintings at home and repaints them.

Initially, his mother wanted to keep Chu’s paintings as mementos, but she was surprised to see that people loved his work.

"I had thought perhaps people praised his paintings because of their relationship with me, so when we had the exhibition in Singapore and got positive comments, I was surprised."

Artists and industry insiders have offered unrestrained praise for his works and his gift.

"It is too early to say that Chu’s destiny is to be a painter. But it is difficult to deny his natural talent," said Vietnamese artist Dinh Quan.

Quan added that the purity in the boy’s works has won his heart.

At Chu’s solo exhibition "Big World, Small Eyes" in New York in 2019, gallery owner George Berges maintained that it would be interesting to see where Chu was headed, as Jackson Pollock produced his most famous pieces at the pinnacle of his career, decades after his 12th birthday, but Chu "is producing similar work at the start of his career."

The painting of a yellow mai tree that Chu made for his mother graces their living room now. Photo courtesy of Xeo Chu.

The painting of a yellow mai tree that Chu made for his mother graces their living room now. Photo courtesy of Xeo Chu.

A helpful bent

The stardom and riches that Chu has earned do not seem to have affected him much.

He is not bothered so much about his works' price tags.

"I use that money for charity work and helping children of my age because I have my school, my mom, and a lot of support, but other children do not, so I want to help them," he said.

In December 2020, after his "Flower 2020 - Big World, Little Eyes" exhibition in Saigon, in which 20 of his paintings were sold in hours, he traveled to central province of Quang Tri Province to give donations to students in three mountainous districts.

Suong, his mother, said she has always wanted to help her little son share his happiness with children who face difficulties.

The little artist also has many other hobbies. He likes to read, play with his dog and learn to play table tennis.

"I only paint at the weekend," Chu said.

However, he loves working in his studio, where he has all essential tools and silence for his creativity, he added.

Asked about what he plans to do this year, Chu said he has no specific plans.

"It will be like other years. I will go to school, try to get good grades to make my mom happy. And I will paint what I see."

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