Facing Tram Bui's faceless buildings, I can't help but experience a sense of anomie. I first saw them in the Tacoma Art Museum's 2004 Northwest biennial. They're these blocky structures staring down at me from imperious heights, and the only human-scale, personalizing details I can glom onto are the lines of the scaffolding around them, but those are aloofly razor-straight. The buildings are one color and the sky another. Where the sky shines through the layers of planks in the scaffolding, it is eerily thick, like it could be pierced. I imagine the artist as someone with asocial tendencies, who spends his time hunched over in his studio painting scenes of an abandoned, imaginary, post-something city where the air has congealed and the buildings' bones have jumped out of their skins.
Critics really should be regulated. Good thing I asked to talk to the artist at last week's opening at Davidson Contemporary (the show runs through April 1). Not only is she not a he, and as pleasantly social and red-lipsticked as can be, but she is not doing what I thought at all. Every one of her paintings is a portrait of a real building under construction around town. Seen in a group, this becomes rather obvious, since the titles are either numbers or street names. They make me want to ride around to see if I can find the structures with their faces on, and maybe, their scaffolding already off.
Bui's early education was as a representational painter, and she focused on interior scenes. When she got to Seattle in 1999 to attend graduate school in painting at the UW, she had a tiny apartment with no pictorial potential, so she set about making a cityscape, only to realize she was more interested in the construction site in the foreground than the city behind it. Her paintings now—this is her first major solo show—strip away all the stray elements in the landscape, leaving only building and sky, mano a mano.
But once a representational painter, always one. Bui bases her paintings on photographs she takes, and transfers them through a series of elaborate scale calculations. She is drawn to the precision that comes with using math, rulers, and tape to delineate the buildings' edges from the sky, but she longs to exert herself, too, through abstraction and improvisation. That tension is in the paintings, which are photorealistic, abstract, and flat as inky stamps all at once: The buildings are monochromatic shapes cutting into a monochromatic sky—it is all thick oil on panel—and they are only given depth and dimension by the chalky patterns of the scaffolding. The mind and the eye are never quite in agreement about how to see them.
Also, they're getting tantalizingly bigger. Climbing up and down the studio ladder gives Bui the feeling she's actually constructing something. She says if she could make a painting the size of a building, she would.