Deconstruct the details of "Centennial Pond," a 4-foot by 32-foot mural by John Hung Ha that is the signature piece hanging in the Parthenon's East Gallery, and the painting reads like an autobiography.
The piece is a calming look on a koi pond. Nine fish — one black and eight brilliantly colored — swim in the clean, glistening water and the Parthenon reflects inversely on the surface.
The koi, an important symbol of strength and prosperity in Asian culture, salutes his birthplace, Saigon, to a Vietnamese mother and a Chinese father. In the early 1980s, his family, living in a refugee camp, fled for the United States and settled in Nashville, where a local church gave the Has a house and found work for his father.
The pop art feel and nuances of graffiti in the painting point to Ha's American upbringing while the reflection of the looming Greek replica specifies Nashville.
That's the story told as eyes scan over the multiple panels that form the mural. A closer — much closer — look reveals multiple layers of paint and other mediums, application techniques and styles, under the even topcoat of varnish.
Ha takes care to set the fish apart and give them character by customizing their scales, faces and bodies. Some scales are painted solid colors; some a splattered paint design; some a mixture of oil paint and water, which, because the two materials don't mix, sets in a fluid, wet appearance like the inside of a lava lamp. Other scales are made from fabric and paper, and combinations chunked together like puzzle pieces.
The white petals of the lilies resting on the water’s surface are outlined in thick strokes of an iridescent, translucent paint that changes color from one sparkling hue to another depending on the light. Even more texture is visible with colored rhinestones that adorn the backs of the fish.
The various appearances of the dried paint suggest a number of techniques, including application by brush, airbrush, spray can and splattering.
The almost cartoonish bulging of the fish’s eyes and puffed out lips give a modern feel while the ancient Chinese letters and geometric designs of the fabric and paper contrast styles of new and old.
"When you see a large painting, it often pulls you in because of its size but then it has no depth, but ["Centennial Pond"] really draws you in because of its layers," said Susan Shockley, the head curator at the Parthenon.
The painting is part of the exhibit, The Legend of the Koi: New Paintings by John Hung Ha, opening today at the Parthenon. An artist reception is set for 6 p.m. in the gallery.
Ha, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, began focusing on the koi while in college and developing their feeling, look and texture. His koi are now recognizably his creations.
"The koi fish is very inspiring to me,” Ha said. “It's been in the Chinese culture for a long time, and I think it's very magnificent to watch. If you have a fish tank or a pond, it is very relaxing and puts you in a different mindset and whatever you are worrying about goes away and you focus on the beauty of nature. The emperors of Japan believed that you had eight golden, very colorful koi and one black one that represented misfortune and evil and everything negative. If the black koi died first, it was believed the emperor would live a prosperous, worry-free life. If one of the others died first, it would be bad for business, family, illnesses or diseases."
Part of the exhibit is a series of nine individual fish — one black and eight others in gray, yellow, blue, lime green, red and orange hues. The black fish is painted swimming towards the sky, which represents growth and prosperity. Ha said that was deliberate to reduce the fish's influence of misfortune.
The other eight are more whimsical. One, called the "Elvis Koi," is distinguished by scales decorated with various shots of Elvis at different ages and poses, concert posters, movie stills, Graceland's marquee and an image of the King's Cadillac. Another, the "Versace Koi," has scales adorned with emblems of the various fashion houses — Versace, Gucci, Fendi, Zac Posen and Dolce and Gabbana.
This exhibit has been in the works since 2003. Back then, Ha was still an emerging artist, but he's since shown in galleries in New York City (where he currently lives), Los Angeles, Chicago and Italy.
"Then, I wasn't familiar with his work, and I got a call from John saying he was in town and could he come by and show me some stuff. He carried them into the lobby — these huge four-by-eight foot pieces, and they just dwarfed the space," Shockley said. "That's when I knew they were stupendous."
While hanging the oversized pieces in the Parthenon's East Gallery, Ha, Shockley and the curatorial staff faced challenges like the paintings' cumbersome sizes and weights, misplaced nails and outdoor heat.
"I kept saying, 'the black koi reared its ugly head,'" Shockley said. "It's become part of my vocabulary."
What: The Legend of the Koi: New Paintings by John Hung Ha
When: Now through Sept. 29
Where: Parthenon, 2600 West End Ave.
Cost: $5 for adults, $2.50 for children four to 17 and seniors 62 and older, free for children under four
Info: Nashville.gov/Parthenon/index or 862-8431