harmonica: A Conversation with Tuan Nguyen

Visual artists Tuan Nguyen and John Early first met four years ago when they became next-door neighbors in St. Louis. Two months later, their wives gave birth on the same day to each couple’s first child. Countless walks down the alley, meals, and jumping parties ensued as their families became close friends through the shared experience of raising children. On the eve of the opening of harmonica—Nguyen’s solo exhibition at fort gondo—they sat down to discuss Nguyen’s recent work and how parenthood and having a home studio have shaped his practice.

Tuan Nguyen is a painter, sculptor and Director of Education at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. His artwork has been exhibited nationally in Los Angeles, CA; New York, NY; Seattle, WA and St. Louis, MO. Nguyen received his MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle, WA. Born in Vietnam and raised in Rockledge, FL, Nguyen currently lives and works in St. Louis.


John Early: I love the fact that in a brief flurry of activity, your daughter dashes in to give you this huge hug, my laptop slips off the bench and crashes to the floor, and the audio file containing our conversation thus far is lost. Such a picture of the agony and ecstasy of having kids…

So, take two! There’s always been a childlike and playful quality to your work and I’m curious about how being a father has impacted that aspect of your practice.

Tuan Nguyen: You have this new person in your space, someone who’s discovering the world for the first time and discovering really, really weird shit everywhere. Lint on the ground, weird leaves, sitting outside in the mud for hours if you let them.  They’re finding stuff you don’t normally see or even look for. And this is something I think as an artist you do anyways, but I’ve just found that having a child brought me back to that place in a very immediate way. It’s been very invigorating to my practice and a nice shock to the system.

JE: That’s what I find so wonderful about your work. There’s a real pleasure and delight present in it. Many of the pieces are pretty bizarre [laughs], but maybe that’s what it’s like when a two-year-old finds something in an alley. Perhaps it’s this combination of the bizarre and the delightful that makes something remarkable.

TN: Yeah, I totally understand what you’re saying. What compels your son to stop and look down when he’s running around the neighborhood? What compels us to stop and have intense focus? You’re present with something, lose track of time, and then hours pass. In my work I’m always trying to surprise myself. I get bored pretty quickly.

JE: Almost like a kid, right?

TN: I mean, right. I never thought about it like that.

sea bed, dimensions variable, acrylic paint and wood tray, 2014

sea bed, dimensions variable, acrylic paint and wood tray, 2014

JE: Your work for harmonica spans the past year and a half. What pieces will comprise the exhibition?

TN: I’ll be including these bricks that are made of saw dust and paint, as well as some marbles made from bits and scraps of old paintings that I’ve congealed together and dipped in acrylic. There are also these pieces of fruit made from acrylic that are based on fruits my daughter was eating. She’d maybe eat a third of it and leave the rest sitting around the house.

JE: Classic!

TN: And I’ll be putting in this chair with a face hanging on it. I made this sort of facemask out of tape and was painting a layer of acrylic on it every day. So I peeled it off like it was molting skin. And there are these vertigo line paintings and some graphite pieces where I’ve combined small bits of leftover wood, painted them in gesso, and then covered them with pencil. And there’s this moth, too. And my teeth. They’re actually acrylic reconstructions of two molars that were taken out years ago.

JE: One thing that strikes me about this body of work is that it consists of these disparate parts and pieces that together form a loose narrative of some kind.

TN: Yeah, I work best when I don’t have an idea of what I’m doing. This is common for artists, I guess, but I don’t have a thought and move towards it. I try to encounter things and let the work come out of a desire or need for its own making.

JE: You’re trained as a painter and you’re using materials traditionally associated with that discipline for your images as well as your objects.

TN: A lot of the works are coming out of a trajectory that began in the late 1990s when I made this painting that I ended up scraping towards the center of the canvas. Seeing the image clumped together like that, I realized everything was there but just in a different form. So my work since then has come from that moment, but most of the pieces in the show more precisely have to do with fatherhood and being at home. And the passage of time that fatherhood has brought up.

JE: How so?

TN: It’s the whole spectrum from when I was young to thinking about the future, like where I’ll be when my daughter is eighteen. Time has just become more acute for me since becoming a father. [The sound of his daughter talking from the other room.] Let me close that door, I’m getting distracted!

JE: There’s a strong connection to place in this body of work. Some pieces reference immediate contexts while others seem to come from other locations or even other worlds altogether.

TN: I’m glad you can see that. I feel like every place I’ve lived—and this goes for everyone—you become a part of that place.

JE: And that place becomes a part of you.

no title, 11.5" x 14.75", graphite pencil on wood, 2014

no title, 11.5″ x 14.75″, graphite pencil on wood, 2014

TN: Yeah, it’s a reciprocal thing where you can’t help but absorb them. So the bricks, of course, relate to St. Louis, but also in fort gondo there are all these pieces of brick filling some holes in the wall. And maybe you do that in your own life in a certain way, you fill in the holes with something.

JE: Sure, the best way you can.

TN: Exactly. So, I’m going to replace those bricks with painted bricks made from sawdust and acrylic paint. Living in New York for a few years inspired the textured graphite pieces. The ceilings in my apartment were made of this heavily textured plaster where you could look up and never fully grasp the details, but you remember the spirit of it. And the seashells have a lot to do with Florida where I grew up. And the fantastical pieces are more about imagined spaces. In all, there’s this idea of displacement and transplantation, so the works kind of have that feel of an in-between place. It’s not a painting but it’s not a sculpture. And I like that space, when I can look at my own work and surprise myself and frustrate my expectations.

JE: That harkens back to the scraped painting, where there was perhaps a familiarity or comfort level that you wanted to do away with, as if you needed something different from the work.

TN: Yes, a negation in a way. The gesture of scraping was about a rejection of influence. I was making these paintings and I saw something in there I didn’t like. They weren’t me. I’m sure everyone can relate to this on some level, but what part of me is me? And if you want to throw on top of that being an immigrant and a political refugee and not feeling like you belong to either culture. Seeing where that painting was coming from, I rejected it, realizing that the painting was still there but in a different form. That was big for me. It became a starting point.

JE: That’s a really nice thought.

TN: And going back to the idea of displacement, I feel like that’s not isolated to racial or ethnic identities. I think most people these days sort of feel that on some level. I think the in-between spaces can begin to exist as spaces unto themselves. And maybe this work is trying to carve out that space. But in a way all work is like that. We have to carve out its existence in some way. [Nguyen’s daughter runs in to give him a hug and kiss goodnight.]

JE: What does your daughter think of your work?

TN: She likes it. You know, sometimes kids can be really harsh critics though. [laughs]

JE: They can be! What type of feedback does she give you?

TN: So far, so good! She likes the fruit and the abstract paintings. She’s been a surprisingly good supporter. Obviously, she’s really biased [laughs], but she spends a lot of time with it.

JE: I’ve seen her have space set up in your studio. Does she help with your work?

TN: She helped me with the brick when she saw me putting graphite on it. She did for a little bit and was like “Daddy, this is harder than it looks!” and left.

JE: So much for “My kid could do that.” It’s harder than it looks folks! [laughs]

TN: We sometimes do things together when she feels like it. But I’ve been working more at nighttime to get some uninterrupted time. We’ll work side by side, or I’ll take it to her desk to work with her. You and your son work together, too.

JE: Yeah, we’ve had some collaborative efforts stacking plastic lids recently. I’ve also been taking cues from things he’s been making. For some reason, creations he leaves behind I feel compelled to remake.

TN: I totally get that. Jessica [Baran] was telling me that your son was her first toddler to exhibit at beverly. He’s on the artist list!

JE: Yeah. He’s on there before I am! Helping him create work for the “Learning from Judd” show was fun.

Thinking about your work with children and families in your role as Director of Education at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (CAMSTL), I’m curious how that has crossed over into the studio and vice versa.

TN: It’s my belief that everything you do creeps back into your work and maybe in ways you don’t even recognize.

JE: Right, like in your work these little things like seashells—bloop—just pop up seemingly out of nowhere.

TN: I worked for three years in New York doing decorative painting and at the time I couldn’t imagine any of that influencing my artwork years later, which it has. So, I don’t know that my work at CAMSTL is coming out explicitly in my work right now, but I will say that when I teach, the students challenge me to see things I wouldn’t typically see. It’s similar to what we were talking about earlier with having children.

first brick, 8" x 3.75" x 2", acrylic and saw dust, 2013

first brick, 8″ x 3.75″ x 2″, acrylic and saw dust, 2013

JE: Going back to your training as a painter, you have a love for the materials and a real respect for the history of painting.

TN: I feel like a lot of these works are coming out of the practice and traditions of painting and the idea of a picture. I’m using wood, panel, and paint but it’s just configured in a different way. What I’ve always enjoyed about painting is that the medium is so open. Sculptural, abstract, photorealistic—there’s amazing potentiality there. So, I’ve tried in a way to maybe honor that. I don’t know if that’s the right word, but I’m thinking about pictures taking on new forms. When I think about that brick, I see it more as a picture than a sculpture.

JE: Many of the sculptural works for the show look like objects that could have been taken from paintings, say a still life or vanitas painting.

TN: I did some trompe l’oeil paintings of objects on a table and there was this reversal of recognition. The flat painted pieces were obviously rendered and illusionistic, but they felt more real than the sculptural pieces that seemed to me to be so artificial. So again, really messing with different modes of representation.

JE: And also the more classical idea of painting as a window into another space.

TN: I really like that part about painting. I guess I’ll just say that I really appreciate that painting is illusionistic. You can totally get lost in a story or narrative. I like the ability of a picture to do that and it still holds power for me. But at the same time, a painting doesn’t have to stay there; it can do a lot. I’m still trying to discover what it can do.

JE: Have you ever had studios outside your living space?

TN: Yeah, it was tough. An outside studio is nice because you can get more space than in a home, but the way that I work, going somewhere for a long chunk of time isn’t something that I can do. I work in spurts and often there’s this pattern where the first take is the one that’s most productive for me. It’s the most immediate.

JE: And the most authentic, I think.

TN: It’s unmediated. Other people can do that really well, that is, to practice and practice and have something look fantastic. I can’t do that. I have to do it on that first take or I end up overproducing it. If I stay in the studio too long I’ll want to mess with it, overworking it, or end up second-guessing it and then destroying it.

JE: I know for myself that the studio can sometimes feel like an empty, isolated space where I find myself just stuck. I often need something in my immediate context to respond to and that’s in part why I think a home studio works for me. It seems like your work is responsive in similar ways to the activities of your life at home. I wonder to what degree your work would be different if your studio were elsewhere?

TN: That’s a good question. I want more space, sure, but not to make larger works. I made some larger paintings recently and it felt terrible.

JE: Did they look terrible, too?

TN: Yeah, they looked terrible, felt terrible, everything about it.

JE: Well, I think a lot of what your work is about are these smaller moments as opposed to colossal pieces that command your attention. I mean, I’m sitting here face to face with two oversized teeth and a crazy moth!

TN: That’s the only kind of stuff I can make. My work may not have the sensational presence required to get people’s attention these days, but I hope the pieces stick around and come back to you if you let them in, I guess.

JE: Yeah, it’s the “letting in” that’s always the catch I think, especially in a culture where there’s so little time or space for subtler experiences.

TN: I like to think that these things grow on people; they do on me. At first I’m kind of fearful or even embarrassed of them, but over time they reveal themselves slowly and build their strength.

Tuan Nguyen: hormonica is on view at fort gondo in St. Louis, MO March 29 – April 19, 2014.

Images courtesy of the artist.

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