Tammy Nguyen

January 19, 2021
Tell us about your practice.
My practice is an exploration of confusion. I am interested in confusion as a tense space for either radical thinking or complacency. I explore what this tension means to me, and what it could mean to my viewers, by creating stories realized in printmaking, painting, publishing, and happenings.
I usually create stories about subjects that I do not understand deeply, juxtaposing them with topics that I have not seen side-by-side regularly. In recent years, I have frequently depicted tropical landscapes in Southeast Asia, yellow-skinned bodies that are human and alien, and “exotic” flora and fauna. These subjects have been proxies for me to allude to various conflicts, from the South China Sea to environmental disasters. I also frequently fold Western classical myths and philosophies into my stories because I enjoy deeply reading the canon of Western ideology and finding subtleties and contradictions within it. Using these lesser-known moments of collision, I craft narratives that aim to expand agglomerate identities, such as my own Asian-American background.
When I choose to challenge myself, my probing puts me through an uncomfortable process of challenging what I thought I knew, my principles, and my ethics. When I choose to be complacent, I fall into a relaxing space where I feel safe. Confusion, therefore, creates an ethical dilemma suspended between difficult growth and comfortable ignorance. In my art, the seduction of comfort is reflected in my selection of materials and color play. When I construct, I strive to create an effortless appearance of technique, whether it is through sweeping mark-making or harmonious use of color. This pursuit of elegant form aims to be comfortable to one’s eyes so that the dissonance of my content is constantly under threat of finding its happy place.
How do you incorporate your cultural background into your works?
My heritage influences my work through content, form, and material.  In terms of content, I often explore subjects from Vietnam and connect them with personal stories and lesser-known histories. I am Vietnamese and American and I often oscillate between which identity I feel more aligned with depending on my context. For example, when I am in Vietnam, I feel much more American, and when I am in America, I feel much more Vietnamese – these feelings become more nuanced when I am at home with my family in California or in New York City in my creative circles.
I think this is why I am interested in translations—and more specifically why I am interested in creating visual artworks from my own written narratives. The process of translating spoken (usually English and sometimes Vietnamese) words into my “visual words” is a formal exploration that I am deeply interested and invested in. Finally, this takes me to how my cultural background influences my materials. In between my studies at Cooper Union and Yale, I took four years off and was a Fulbright Fellow in Vietnam where I studied traditional Vietnamese lacquer painting. I don’t practice lacquer painting anymore, but the process inspires the paintings that I make today.
My paintings now use watercolor, vinyl paint, pastel, and metal leaf applied on paper that has been stretched to wooden panels. The paintings are extremely smooth, but the colors are driven deeply into the paper with many layers of transparent and opaque forms, alluding to traditional Vietnamese lacquer painting.
What’s next for you?
It’s going to be a busy next few years! I have a few group shows in February and March and a two-person show with Thad Higa at Five Myles in Brooklyn. Then, in June, I’ll have a solo show at Smack Mellon. All of these projects stem from the publication I mentioned, so if you really want to get deep into it, give it a read: Phong Nha, the Making of an American Smile.

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