I was watching House of Cards last night, Season 3, Episode 3–the one in which the coarse and cagey Russian President Petrov makes a state visit to the White House. At one point (spoiler alert) , before his relationship with the Underwoods goes south, Francis gives Petrov a gift of an exquisite, one-of-a-kind surfboard, telling him it was made by “Tomas Vu, a very talented American artist.” I sat up, wondering if it could be the same Tomas Vu I met during a meeting at Columbia a few weeks ago. I immediately friended Vu on Facebook, and sure enough, images of the scene were displayed on his timeline.
So here’s a bit of backstory: Vu has been at Columbia, where he holds a LeRoy Neiman Professorship in Visual Arts and
also serves as the Artistic Director of the LeRoy Neiman
Center for Print Studies, since 2008. Born in Saigon in 1963, his family moved to El Paso when he was ten and he graduated from Yale’s MFA program in 1990. According to his website, when he was a young boy, Vu lived in China Beach in Da Nang, site of one of the largest American air bases during the Vietnam War. He made money taking care of surfboards for American GIs, whose fondness for surfing was immortalized in Apocalypse Now. “You either surf or fight,” Robert Duvall’s Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore told his men as combat raged and the waves rolled into China Beach.
Here’s an excerpt from Vu’s website:
One GI in particular took a liking to him, and introduced him to the
Beatles. The modern technologies that made this man into a literal
killing machine also allowed him to play the Beatles for a young boy
from half a world away, changing Vu’s life and giving the GI a sense
of personal redemption. This inherent tension of technology – its
possibility to both enhance and destroy life – was apparent to Vu at a
young age, and is the inspiration for his surfboards.
Vu’s imagery describes a dystopian vision of our future, an epic
clash between man and machine, nature and technology, which he sees as
the defining tension of our modern era. His drawings are burned multiple
times onto the surface of the boards through the mechanized process of
laser cutting, and their meanings and implications shift as they do.
Complicating this further are the Beatles songs with which the
imagery is paired. Although the Beatles often explicitly protested
“deeper meaning” being projected onto their works, the songs have become
transcendent and universal. The songs are laser cut onto the boards at
variable speeds and depths, with the lyrics often repeating and
overlapping. Much like the possibilities for meaning created by the
layering and repeating of drawings, the words lose their sense of
narrative and context and are opened up to a wholly new set of
By using a surfboard as his canvas, Vu forces these works back into
the world. Just as the imagery will continue to mutate in the mind of
the viewer, the boards will literally change, picking up history as they
are used. The surfboards are modeled on the alaia, a pre-20th century
Hawaiian surfboard that was traditionally between 7 and 12 ft long and
made from koa wood. Vu’s boards, like many modern alaias, are
constructed from paulownia wood rubbed with linseed oil. They are
produced using natural material shaped with human hands, and are thus
variable and imperfect. By using a mechanical, computerized tool to mark
a surfboard made of natural materials and shaped by the human hand,
these works hint at the redemptive potentiality of technology.
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