Seattle artist Tuan Nguyen’s house is a bright teal—it seemed to glow on the morning I came by to take a peek at his studio. The house is nestled on a quiet street in Columbia City, hidden behind a lush crop of trees in the front yard.
Admittedly, when seeing his show, Open when you forget, down at Specialist Gallery in Pioneer Square, I had a hard time interpreting his work. The way he mixes his materials, creating paintings that are outside of what is traditionally thought of as a “painting,” made it hard for me to wrap my mind around them. Nevertheless, the uniqueness and strangeness of his paintings are enigmatic—something drew me to them. I was eager to get a better hold on what was going on in Nguyen’s brain.
Born in Vietnam, Nguyen moved to Central Florida in 1975 when he was three years old during the mass exodus of Vietnamese refugees after the war. He grew up near Cocoa Beach, where he’d go to the shore and watch space shuttle launches as a child. As he pulled out giant folders full of colorful line drawings onto his kitchen table, which he rarely shows because of how different they are from what he normally does, Nguyen told me that comics were one of his first loves as a format and served as an introduction to art.
His drawings mostly contain surreal aliens that engage in strange human habits like wearing pirates clothes or having long mustaches and stubble, perhaps an influence from watching rockets blast off into space for all those years. “The way I thought of it was if aliens had come down and tried to recreate American culture and just somehow getting it wrong,” he laughs. “Sorta like us trying to figure out if dinosaurs had feathers and stuff and like, what did they look like? Were they colorful? Were they not? Did they have hair?”
“I think my drawings reference American culture a lot and I think, if anything, it’s also about American culture from an immigrant’s perspective. Taking it in then regurgitating it and it coming out different, coming out wrong in some way.”
After going through some of his drawings we go inside his studio. Nguyen works out back in a garage-turned-studio space that’s painted the same shade of blue-green as the house—it’s cozy and hums with good creative energy. On the back wall hang several rows of Nguyen’s small but very powerful object-paintings.
He tells me, “For myself, I consider [these objects] painting because they come out of the history and the practice of painting. And, in a way, all these pieces here start out from a rectangular piece of wood.” As an artist with an MFA in painting from the University of Washington, he tries to keep his materials in line with the traditional materials that painters use.
To create these circular, more organic shapes, he saws off the corners of the wooden panels, then takes all the shavings and sawdust and repurposes them back into the painting itself. Sometimes he’ll mix the sawdust with acrylic paint to form a ball, which he then dips in gesso, a type of primer, sands, and covers in graphite. The result looks like something our founding fathers used to stuff in their guns.
“I wanted to create a space for myself, and looking at painting and the history of painting there’s not a lot of people of color in it. And Vietnamese men,” he says. “Everything I saw was this specific style of painting and I felt like I wanted to create something that was mine in some way. In doing that, I was deconstructing it or dismantling it a little bit and trying to turn it into something else.”
I understood it as him trying to break painting and put it back together in a new way. Or maybe, look at it from a different perspective. How can an artist make what’s been traditionally confined on a square canvas or panel new? How can they intervene? How can they insert themselves in a space that’s excluded them? What comes out of that? These are important questions to think about when looking at Nguyen’s work. I felt like I had a breakthrough.
His show at Specialist expands on that concept, that thread of how to recycle and make something new with what you know, and expands it to include time, the title (Open when you forget) inspired by a private note written by his daughter to herself.
“A lot of my work at the time was starting to come together and a lot of it was sort of about the passing of time, trying to hold on to things and remember things, and recording and keeping the things you throw away,” Nguyen muses. “But also make sense of the moment and not forget what’s happening. Because life just goes by so quickly and just trying to be present.”
“I think a lot of artists think a lot about death. Not just physical death of the body but conceptual death. You need death in order to grow, so I was thinking about the death of an idea or the death of the idea of a painting or the death of something," he continues. "But then not thinking that’s the-end-all-be-all but, you need that death or that destruction in order to create something new to come out of it. Out of this end, or out of this death can something come up out of that? And what would that look like?”
There was a pause. We both laughed.
His show Open when you forget will be showing at Specialist until January 27th, when he'll be giving an artist talk at 1 pm.