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Hoang Van-Bui's multi-layered artwork invites speculation about the nature of nationality.

Art installations can be intimidating. They can make you feel like you've missed a prerequisite course somewhere. It can be a relief to see an "artist's statement" on the wall, offering insight into the daunting terrain of natural, man-made and unidentifiable objects.

Then there are those installations - like Hoang Van-Bui's Home-South-Home, now at HCC's Ybor Campus Art Gallery - that require no introduction.

Not that this deeply personal and poetic work doesn't raise questions. But Van-Bui intuitively transforms object to icon in ways that are both spiritual and accessible.

Home-South-Home is the latest outpost in Van-Bui's artistic search for home in a life bisected by war. His art has always involved his quest for cultural identity between the marshy Southeast Asian village of his birth on Vietnam's Mekong River, and his adopted hometown of Tampa in the marshy Southeastern United States.

He uses materials, natural and synthetic, to evoke the memories, myth and ideals of both places. After 30 years of living in the American South, for the first time Van Bui is claiming the United States as a home and nationality. Materials familiar to earlier works are here - red peppers, white rice and blue denim - but their meaning is expanded and integrated into a dualistic whole.

Welcoming you to the gallery in the shape of a prayer rug is the floor piece, "Baby Steps." Chilies, grains of rice and scraps of denim are piled in alternating stripes, suggesting an American identity. But the red, white and blue recede into the yellow shape of a house. A triangular roof is cut from a thick stack of orange and gold gilt prayer papers.

Van Bui draws the viewer in with homey materials and processes he describes as "domestic," meaning maternal, but also nationalistic. The word also describes a household servant. But don't look for an embroidered "Home Sweet Home." Please accept his hospitality, but proceed with caution. For every Western allusion there is an Eastern correspondent; for every sweet sentiment, a bitter loss.

These symbols are loaded.

Yellow, for instance, has become an important color in his new work. In Asia, yellow represents happiness and hope; in America, it's the color of hazard, cowardice and racial slurs. Van-Bui uses shards of yellow school bus in several pieces, an association that conjures childhood memory and parental worry, adding another duality of meaning to the displacement of his immigrant life.

In earlier pieces, Van-Bui used the navel as a potent symbol. In Eastern culture, the navel represents the emotional center of the body, as the heart - a symbol new to his work - does in our culture. "Yellow Belly" is a plump pillow of a heart, shaped of molded yellow wax with the appearance of a giant Godiva chocolate. It is covered in the regularly spaced half-globe protrusions of a bomb or the surface of an underwater mine. The juxtaposition of sentiment, vulnerability and ordinance is literally heartbreaking.

For the Vietnamese people, the concept of home is irrevocably tied to the particular spot of one's birth. Van Bui translates a folk saying that explains this mythic soul-to-earth connection: "Where the cord is cut, the sac is buried." At birth you are rooted to your place on the earth.

Two large wall constructions in the show, "Southern Blot" and "Bittersweet Way," return to his Eastern home in the guise of a patchwork blanket suggesting the pattern of rice paddies. In a manner he has employed in past installations, Van-Bui sews patches and pockets from donated blue jeans into large sheets that he stretches taut over rectangular frames. Again, what is so familiar begins to shape-shift. Blue denim is the uniform of workers everywhere: blue jeans of the cowboys and the overalls of the American farmer. In his new work, the rice paddies might well be the Midwestern cornfields of Grant Wood.

Assimilation is not so easy, of course. A countryside that looks like home from the height of an airplane, upon landing becomes alien ground. Yet the soft faded denim is a comfort, blurring borders, dressing the people in sameness. In "Bittersweet Way," lovely folded ribbons of silk replace torn-off Levi's tags on every pocket, attached with safety pins. The colorful pinned silks offer a creative alternative to the seamless uniformity of Western culture. Van Bui places the excised logos in a funeral mound in the center of the piece.

The elements of Van-Bui's work have layers of meaning, endless reversals between reverie and nightmare, hope and despair. In "Heartland" the artist has forced bamboo roots into the shape of a heart. The roots are tangled and intact, nurtured by the artist over time into this improbable sentimental shape. In the heart's center, in a hollow cutout square, sits a U.S. postage stamp illustrated with three children pledging the American flag.

"Shelter," the show's most elegant formal work, is a canvas of whitewashed denim squares with a white painted bird's nest in its center. The found nest of sticks is loosely woven with no center - the eye of a storm. Inverted in the white canvas are rubber bottle nipples at regular intervals outwardly surrounding the nest. An empty nest in the snow or a spinning Florida hurricane - home as the most elemental human need, here threatened by natural forces that cross all borders and obliterate cultures.

Home is tentative and at times must be improvised, fashioned of found items in the place where one lands.

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