“I don’t know what prodigy means. And I don’t care’

When Xeo Chu was four years old, he had a figurative period. “Ears are very hard to do,” the 14-year-old Vietnamese art prodigy tells me at his first solo exhibition in London, as we look at his first painting, a portrait of his mother.

Nguyen Thi Thu Suong is an appropriate first subject for the artist. She owns two galleries in Ho Chi Minh City and encouraged Xeo and her two brothers to take drawing lessons soon after she was able to walk.

“Without mom, of course, I would be nothing. I certainly wouldn’t be here to talk to you. He bows gently and takes my hands. “Not that that’s a bad thing.

The story his mother tells me is that Xeo Chu was begging to be allowed to take art lessons with his older brothers. So she gave him a pencil and an eraser and let him take lessons after school. His brothers dropped out of class, but Xeo Chu had found his passion. “I love to paint. Even though I sometimes feel alone when I paint, it fills me with joy. I disappear for hours while I paint.

“I really don’t like to talk about my painting… I kind of hide it from my friends”

If, in my eyes, there is nothing exceptional in this first portrait – the charming oversized ears and even the motherly smile that the little boy affectionately offered about him would be unremarkable, even lovely, if you saw them adorn a kindergarten wall – Xeo Chu’s artistic development over the ensuing decade is extraordinary, at least in terms of sales and columns. He sold his first photo to a visitor from his mother’s gallery. “I was really happy. That was when I was about six years old. Since then, his work has been collected all over the world, from the United States to Japan and beyond. Today, critics compare him regularly at Jackson Pollock, his photos are sold for $150,000 and, with this new exhibition at London’s Mayfair following others in Vietnam, Singapore and New York, he has had solo exhibitions on three continents. person, but especially remarkable for someone born in 2007.

Xeo Chu is even more of a reprimand for lazy teenagers than it suggests. He combines the precocity of Diego Rivera (who began drawing at the age of three) with the generosity of Marcus Rashford. At the age of 10, Chu had his first painting exhibition in Singapore and used the $20,000 to support heart surgery funds, elderly people living alone and street children in his city.

Last summer, Xeo Chu sold eight of his works as non-fungible tokens (NFTs) in an online auction on his Facebook pages, donating the total auction proceeds – 2.9 billion VND (€116,000) – to a hospital to buy medical care. equipment for the fight against Covid-19. His mother said, “He may just be a little boy, but I’m learning from him. He teaches me what it is to be generous.

Xeo Chu: The big world seen through small eyes. Photography: Harry Johnson

And last summer too, he showed himself at the forefront of art during an exhibition in Ho Chi Minh City which could be visited virtually by art lovers from all over the world, thanks to a robot of wheeled telepresence that allowed viewers to take a close look at 30 different paintings created during the pandemic. It also allowed them to interact with Xeo Chu as he painted live.

Now is the time when you might want to break away from this article to send your underachieving offspring a cross emoji. I ask Xeo Chu if his brothers and classmates resent his success? “I really don’t like talking to them about my painting for that reason. I kind of hide it from my friends.

We climb a flight of stairs to the main exhibition of his work, passing the walls hung with his early paintings. These are the works that caught the attention of his art teacher, Nguyen Hai Anh, who told Chu’s mother, “It’s the first time I’ve seen a four-year-old draw like that. Palm lines fly, firm like a real artist. One is a landscape he painted when he was five years old while sitting on a terrace overlooking the canal in the city’s District 4. There are more dog paintings, a bitter melon trellis, slanting sunlight through the door – and lots of flowers. “I love flowers,” Thu Suong says, “and it makes me very happy when he paints them.”

One day she received a bouquet of peonies. She tells me she loved them so much that she stayed home for three days to watch them. Xeo Chu noticed that she was hugging the vase. “I drew three color pictures to keep my mother from withering further,” the boy told an interviewer.

I think his best paintings are landscapes, like his series depicting the rice terraces of Mu Cang Chai in northern Vietnam.

As he developed, Xeo Chu (meaning “little pig” – his real name is Pho Van An) took pictures of what he saw on country trips and painted them into paintings. at home. “I love nature. That’s what I find beautiful. I want to draw and paint what I see.

This, in my opinion, makes the comparison with Jackson Pollock seem out of place. The abstract expressionist, after all, didn’t paint what he saw – at least not like you do. “Oh Jackson Pollock! laughed Xeo Chu, feigning exasperation. “Everyone says I’m like him, but I’m not so sure.”

We are looking at one of the colorful abstract paintings from his more mature, non-figurative period that prompted New York gallerist George Bergès, who organized Chu’s first American exhibition, to compare his work to that of Pollock: “Xeo Chu created similar works early in his career. »

Bergès argues that Chu’s oeuvre of over 300 paintings taps into the collective unconscious in ways that older artists struggle to manage. “For me, it was very interesting to work with an artist who is before puberty, because it challenged my notions about art and how the experience of life should enter it. If there is depth and complexity in a work by someone who has very limited life experience, it gives you insight into the universal unconscious that we all have and can tap into.

Xeo Chu: The big world seen through small eyes.  Photography: Harry Johnson

Xeo Chu: The big world seen through small eyes. Photography: Harry Johnson

Maybe: or maybe the view of one of its collectors, Karlene Davis, New Zealand’s Consul General to Vietnam, is closer to the truth. “I love how Chu shows light and color. He sees more than the naked eye and shows the spirit of the image. They are so delicate.

Show me, I’m asking Chu, your favorite painting. He takes me to a work suspended above a fireplace, a ray of sunshine from a sunset. “I had been indoors for so long because of the pandemic and then finally we went to the countryside, so it showed how it felt to be back in nature.” His best paintings, I think, are landscapes, such as his series depicting the rice terraces of Mu Cang Chai in northern Vietnam (“The Wave of [in the rice fields] when harvest season comes, it’s amazing,” he says of his 2019 canvas October, Autumn in Canada). His largest piece to date, Ha Long Bay in Cave, which measures 200cm x 480cm, took three months to paint.

Has your work evolved? “It definitely is. When I started I mostly saw flowers so I painted them. Then I started to travel and painted some of Vietnam’s truly unique landscapes. We sometimes go to Canada. Do you paint what you see in London? “I hope I have time.”

Chu is not the first artistic child prodigy. In 2013 Kieron Williamson, a 10-year-old from Norfolk nicknamed the ‘Mini Monet’, saw his lifetime earnings soar to £1.5million after 23 of his works sold for £250,000 less 20 minutes. When Romanian-American artist Alexandra Nechita, nicknamed “Little Picasso” for her cubist works, was 11 years old in 1996, her works sold in the $100,000 range.

‘Who knows if I’ll paint again [in 10 years] …I’m not really sure what I want to be when I grow up. I’m just a child’

But when collectors put pieces by these artists on the secondary market, they don’t necessarily fare well, according to art expert Barden Prisant.

Writing in Forbes magazine, Prisant found that the best recent auction he could find for a Nechita was just $20,000. “Revealingly and disturbingly, this same piece had sold in 1998 for $92,000.” Prisant found that two of Williamson’s recently auctioned works did not sell. Perhaps Xeo Chu’s fame and bankability will be just as brief.

None of this matters to Xeo Chu. “I don’t really know what prodigy means. And I don’t care. That’s not why I paint. His teacher rightly points out that his pupil is not bound by any school or rule, and thus his work has a youthful freshness. “He always left me free to choose what I wanted to draw and paint,” laughs Xeo Chu. “Sometimes he’ll say ‘it would look better done that way’ but those are just suggestions.”

The concern is that the youthful freshness will dissipate as Xeo Chu grows older and is gripped, as surely all adult artists are, by influence anxiety. Bergès says his client needs to be protected from too much press, which I suspect is fair: too much exposure that might make Xeo Chu think about things that aren’t relevant to making art. The exhibition in London is a retrospective of his first 10 years as an artist. Can you imagine what another exhibition would look like in 10 years? “Who knows if I will paint again,” he replies.

Xeo Chu: The big world seen through small eyes.  Photography: Harry Johnson

Xeo Chu: The big world seen through small eyes. Photography: Harry Johnson

Xeo Chu tells me that he doesn’t know much about the art, but he wants to learn. When I tell him that in the gallery next to his exhibition is an exhibition of works by the late Swedish mystical artist Hilma af Klint, Xeo Chu looks fascinated to learn that someone has been charged by spirits. to paint his canvases. His mother tells me that they are spending time in London in order to have her son study art there. You could be the next Tracey Emin or Damien Hirst, I tell him. “Well maybe,” he said uncertainly. “But I’m not really sure what I want to be when I grow up. I’m just a kid.” – Guardian

Xeo Chu: Big World Seen from Little Eyes is at D Contemporary, London until Friday

Dora W. Clawson