When Xeo Chu was four, he had a figurative period. "Ears are very difficult to do," the 14-year-old Vietnamese art prodigy tells me at his first solo exhibition in London, as we examine his first painting, a portrait of his mother.
Nguyen Thi Thu Suong is a fitting first subject for the artist. She owns two galleries in Ho Chi Minh City and encouraged Xeo and his two brothers to take drawing lessons not long after they could walk.
“Without mum, of course, I would be, like, nothing. I certainly wouldn’t be here talking to you.” He bows sweetly and takes my hands. “Not that that’s a bad thing.”
The story his mum tells me is that Xeo Chu would beg to be allowed to attend art classes with his older brothers. So she gave him a pencil and an eraser and let him attend lessons after school. His brothers gave up the lessons, but Xeo Chu had found his passion. “I love painting. Even if I am sometimes lonely when I paint it fills me with joy. I disappear for hours while I am painting.”
'I really don't like talking about my painting ... I kind of keep it hidden from my friends'
If, to my eyes, there is nothing outstanding about that first portrait – the charmingly oversized ears and even the maternal smile the little boy fondly gave his subject would be unexceptional, if delightful, if you saw them gracing a nursery school wall – Xeo Chu's artistic development in the decade since is extraordinary, at least judged in terms of sales and column inches. He sold his first picture to a visitor to his mum's gallery. "I was really happy. That was when I was like six." Since then his work has been collected all over the world from the US to Japan and beyond. Today critics regularly compare him with Jackson Pollock, his pictures come with $150,000 price tags and, with this new exhibition in London's Mayfair following others in Vietnam, Singapore and New York, he has had solo shows on three continents. Not bad work for anyone, but especially remarkable for someone born in 2007.
Xeo Chu is even more of a rebuke to slacker teens than this suggests. He combines the precocity of Diego Rivera (who began drawing at the age of three) with the great-heartedness of Marcus Rashford. When he was 10, Chu had his first painting exhibition in Singapore and used the $20,000 proceeds to support heart surgery funds, the elderly 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 proceeds of the auction – VND2.9 billion (€116,000) – to a hospital to buy medical equipment to combat Covid-19. His mother says: "He may only be a little boy but I am learning from him. He is teaching me what it is to be generous."
And last summer, too, he proved himself to be at the cutting-edge of art during a show in Ho Chi Minh City that could be visited virtually by art lovers around the world, thanks to a wheeled telepresence robot that enabled spectators to look closely at 30 different paintings created during the pandemic. It also allowed them to interact with Xeo Chu as he painted live.
Now is the moment that you might want to break off from this article to text your underachieving offspring a cross-face emoji. I ask Xeo Chu if his brothers and school mates get resentful of his success? “I really don’t like talking about my painting to them for just that reason. I kind of keep it hidden from my friends.”
We climb a staircase to the main exhibition of his work, passing on the way walls hung with his earliest paintings. These are the works that caught the eye of his art teacher, Nguyen Hai Anh, who told Chu's mother: "This is the first time I saw a four-year-old child draw like that. Palm lines fly, firm like a true artist." One of them is a landscape he painted aged five as he sat on a terrace overlooking the city's District 4 canal. There are other paintings of dogs, a trellis of bitter melon, sunshine slanting through the doorway – and lots of flowers. "I love flowers," says Thu Suong, "and it makes me very happy when he paints them."
One day, she received a bouquet of peonies. She tells me that she loved them so much she stayed home for three days to look at them. Xeo Chu noticed her hugging the vase. “I drew three colour pictures to prevent my mother from wilting any more,” the boy told one interviewer.
His best paintings, I think, are landscapes, such as his series depicting northern Vietnam's Mu Cang Chai terraced rice fields
As he developed, Xeo Chu (which means “little pig” – his real name is Pho Van An) took photographs of what he saw on trips to the countryside and made paintings of them at home. “I love nature. That is what I find beautiful. I want to draw and paint what I see.”
This, I suggest, makes the comparison with Jackson Pollock seem misplaced. The abstract expressionist, after all, didn’t paint what he saw – at least not in the way that you do. “Oh Jackson Pollock!” laughs Xeo Chu, feigning exasperation. “Everybody says I’m like him, but I’m not so sure.”
We’re standing before one of the colourful abstract paintings from his more mature, non-figurative period that induced New York gallerist George Bergès, who put on Chu’s first American show, to compare his work to Pollock’s: “Xeo Chu is creating similar works from the very beginning of his career.”
Bergès argues that Chu’s 300-plus painting oeuvre taps into the collective unconscious in a way older artists struggle to manage. “To me it was very interesting to work with an artist who’s before puberty, because it challenged my notions about art and how life experience has to go into it. If there is depth and complexity in a piece of work from someone who has very limited life experience, it gives you a glimpse of the universal unconscious that we all have and can tap into.”
Perhaps: or maybe the perspective of one of his collectors, Karlene Davis, New Zealand consul general in Vietnam is nearer the mark. "I love the way Chu shows light and colour. He sees more than the naked eye and shows the spirit of the picture. They are so delicate."
Show me, I ask Chu, your favourite painting. He takes me to a work hanging over a fireplace, a sunburst of a sunset. “I had been indoors for so long because of the pandemic and then finally we went to the country so this showed how I was feeling to be back in nature again.” His best paintings, I think, are landscapes, such as his series depicting northern Vietnam’s Mu Cang Chai terraced rice fields (“The wave of yellow [in the rice fields] when the harvest season comes is incredible,” he says of his 2019 canvas October, Autumn in Canada). His biggest piece so far, Ha Long Bay in Cave, which measures 200cm x 480cm, took three months to paint.
Has your work evolved? "It definitely has. When I started I saw mainly flowers so I painted them. Then I started to travel so I painted some of the really unique landscapes of Vietnam. We go to Canada sometimes." Will you paint what you see in London? "I hope to have time."
Chu is hardly the first artistic child prodigy. In 2013, Kieron Williamson a 10-year-old from Norfolk dubbed the "Mini Monet", saw his lifetime earnings soar to £1.5m after 23 of his works sold for £250,000 in under 20 minutes. When Romanian-American artist Alexandra Nechita, dubbed "Petite Picasso" for her cubist works, was 11 in 1996 her works sold in the $100,000 range.
'Who knows if I will still be painting [in 10 years] ... I'm not really sure what I want to be when I grow up. I'm just a kid'
But when collectors put pieces by these artists on the secondary market, they do not necessarily fare well, according to art appraiser Barden Prisant.
Writing in Forbes magazine, Prisant found that the top recent auction he could find for a Nechita was only $20,000. “Revealingly, and disquietingly, that very same piece had sold in 1998 for $92,000.” Prisant found that two of Williamson’s works auctioned recently did not sell. Perhaps Xeo Chu’s celebrity and bankability will be similarly brief.
None of this matters to Xeo Chu. “I don’t really know what prodigy means. And I don’t really care. That’s not why I paint.” His teacher rightly points out that his pupil is not bound by any school or rule, and so his work has a youthful freshness. “He always let me be free to choose what I want to draw and paint,” laughs Xeo Chu. “Sometimes he will say ‘that would look better done like this’ but they’re only suggestions.”
The worry is that the youthful freshness will dissipate as Xeo Chu grows up and gets seized, as surely all adult artists are, by the anxiety of influence. Bergès says his client needs to be protected from too much press, which I suspect is right: too much exposure that could make Xeo Chu reflect on things that are irrelevant to making art. The exhibition in London is a retrospective of his first 10 years as an artist. Can you imagine what another exhibition in 10 years would look like? “Who knows if I will still be painting,” he replies.
Xeo Chu tells me he doesn't know much art, but he wants to learn. When I tell him that in the gallery next door to his exhibition is a show of work by the late Swedish mystical artist Hilma af Klint, Xeo Chu looks fascinated to learn that someone was instructed by spirits to paint her canvases. His mum tells me that they are spending time in London with a view to her son studying art here. You could become the next Tracey Emin or Damien Hirst, I tell him. "Well maybe," he says, uncertain. "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