Syntax Issue 10
Denver Syntax

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It can be said that, even in the most outlandish examples, all art is a self-portrait. This is the belief of Colorado painter Viet Rocks (birth name, Viet Doan). Working within a palette of monsters, robots, toys, television and children – his work swims in abstract lands: the imagination of his childhood. If you could take a photograph of the inside of his head, both now and then, you would find these components – these stories. These paintings.

In the same way that what we are composed of is us and in the same way that what we think is who we are: this is Viet Rocks. He is a boy and a man with an exacting hand. He lives in these paintings. They are his secret worlds. His respite from the rest of us. These worlds and paintings are he.

His paintings are a friendly gesture. They say, come in. Take a look around. Because he knows you’ll have to leave, sooner or later.

Viet Doan was born in Vietnam. His family fled after his father’s name was called to attend the Viet Cong’s re-education camps. As part of the famous boat people that fled after the fall of Southern Vietnam, his family came over – one child short. The family decided to take the painter and leave his brother, for he was sickly and was in need of Western medicine. The immigrants came to Colorado by way of California to fight for their place in the American world.

His parents are a success story. They lived in the projects around Denver, then they graduated: They bought a Vietnamese grocery on Federal upgraded their station in life. As with many families that are reaching beyond themselves – the pressure for the progeny to become great in their new life can be a tremendous pressure and in the Doan family, this was no different.

As an adolescent, Viet Rocks spent his time primarily on his own. He stayed in the house. At school, he was isolated. In every world, he drew. And drew. And drew. And, his parents weren’t impressed positively. He was scolded, he was told to get good grades (which he did, all the way through school). To cope, he lived an insular world. The few toys he was afforded, he drew them as much as he played with them. He was obsessed with cartoons. He would record them on a VHS cassette, then pause the tapes and draw the characters. In this private world he learned how to draw, to illustrate. To articulate. These characters became his comrades. Further, the drawings created an even deeper sense of intimacy – a world for him to run within, with these characters. This closeness created a place for the stories that he generated in his head, off-script, to finds legs and live.

In most places in his childhood, Viet Rocks was an outcast. At home, he was told to cease drawing – his parents wanted him to become a doctor or lawyer. At school , he protected himself from the others with his drawings. But there was one voice that was solace, one voice that has remained as a heavy influence to this day – that was the voice of Stephen Brackett, aka Brer Rabbit of the Denver band, Flobots. It was Brackett that Viet will cite as being his biggest exterior driving force, his biggest supporter. “He just called me out when I was cutting corners,” Viet fondly recalls. Famously, Brackett visited one of Viet’s exhibitions after college. After working through the gallery, Brackett told him to burn it all. Brackett told him that he was better than this. Viet listened. Those words, still ringing in his storyboard head today.

Viet Rocks’ paintings are stories executed in an abstract world. There is that boy sitting in front of all those blank, color spectrum televisions, trying to create a world for himself instead of being told what that world is and what it means. That’s Viet, that’s you. That’s me. We are all the boys below the towering monsters, the robots. In this world, the robots are lumbering angels – protecting the kids and the teddy bears. There’s a palpable sense of tension, a struggle to communicate. In his oftentimes elongated horizontal frames there is explicit motion – a reaching-out, toward fun, to adventure, for challenge.

He uses medium density fiberboard – the weight of the pieces is delightful: made of wood, they’re light, airy – but picking them up, you know they should be heavy. Somehow the medium mirrors his work in this way. Apart from orthodoxy he utilizes screen printing inks – they give his work the kind of fluidity and malleability that he long desired in acrylics. Always working on several pieces at once, each of his otherworldly characters require four or five layers of ink to attain his requisite pastel tones. Each work finds completion in a couple of weeks.

Viet Rocks’ work is predicated on a lifetime of research and development. His parents wanted him to become a different kind of professional. But Viet fought against this current and remained true to the idea that his paintings made sense. And over the years, with the encouragement of others, his work has blossomed; this notion has worked itself out. With his work running alongside his life, he has gladly confronted challenge – to drive new characters out of him, to find new plotlines, new styles. And just like his horizontal paintings, he has come from the beginning world on the left side – the abstract world – and he is moving linearly, toward the concrete future of his life as a working, living artist.

Follow Viet Rock’s upcoming exhibitions and new work, here: www.roboarobob.com