Friday, July 15, 2011

Andrew Hem's "Cold Water"

This Saturday, July 16th, my dear friend Andrew Hem will be opening his third Los Angeles solo show at LeBasse Projects in Culver City. "Cold Water" explores those dark, empty spaces in the heart that form when those we love and trust are torn from us by circumstance or betrayal, and how we find our path through those cold places to emerge into the light again. In addition to the 10 paintings in the main exhibition, there will be a spectacular project room installation of grouped panels painted in Andrew's loose, intuitive mural style.

"It Takes Time and Patience, But You'll Get There"

While Andrew was painting his most recent mural two weeks ago, he sat down with me for a few minutes to talk about where he came from and what's been inspiring him lately. Here are a few of the things he told me.

Andrew Hem: The title of my upcoming show is "Cold Water." It deals with a lot of cold places — you know, everybody goes through troubled waters. I wanted to show that cold environment to get that mood across... a lot of snows and waters and that dark place, that monochromatic kind of feeling. I’ve always done every show around culture and what inspires me and what I’m fascinated with. Recently, there have been a lot of things going on in my life, and I just wanted to put my heart on my sleeve and paint what’s been bothering me.

"Friend or Foe"

I think that in graffiti, you always gotta have this kind of rapper’s mentality, where there’s always gonna be beef and there’s always gonna be rivalry with somebody. I feel like when beef happens, you always rely on your crew to back you up. But lately, there’s been a lot of crazy stuff going on, and it’s hard to get your friends to back you up, when one of your good friends got deported, and then you lose another one... and then you’re starting to feel that there’s a shortage of crew members, and slowly, a lot of them shift away.

"It Will Eventually Drift"

I’ve been including a lot of water in the paintings, because water, it never stays still. People always drift away. I would like for it to be the same as when you were younger, when you have this tight bond with all your friends. There are certain things I like about graffiti, but I would like for it also to be more like it is with artists in the art scene, where there’s no rivalry, there’s no beef, there’s no tension, there’s just everybody loving doing art. That’s one thing I really hate about graffiti, that there’s always beef involved. When rappers beef, you don't know if it’s just hype, you feel like it’s kind of promotion, that it helps them. I don’t know why graffiti artists beef, to tell you the truth. This year, there’s been a lot of negativity and beef that’s been going on in my life, and it’s been hurtful and it’s been hard for me to even paint. So I just wanted to show that.


In the beginning of the process of these paintings, I was in that crazy place, but towards the middle of it, I started making new friends, which was kind of crazy, and towards the end, I met a girl, and she’s helped me a lot. At the end, in the last piece in the show, it has the most dramatic lighting — it’s like walking through a tunnel and into this ray of light. It’s called "At the End of the Tunnel." But I didn’t realize that then, when I was painting it. When I put my paintbrush down, I was like, "Holy crap, this is my last one, and it’s the only one with a light source." So it’s like a finishing touch to the whole show. And now I feel I’m over that stage in my life, and I can move on. I’m not thinking about it any more. It bothered me a lot for the whole painting process. I had about 20 nightmares about tension and this whole beef and the situation that’s been going on, and now I haven’t had any more dreams, so I think I’m over it now. Hopefully.

"End of the Tunnel"

We’re in Culver City right now, and this is my biggest wall ever attempted. I always wanted to do something this big, and it’s great that I did it in my hometown. It feels like Culver City’s changed so much since I’ve grown up. It was really gang-infested, you couldn’t walk anywhere without being hit up where you were from, and now it’s kind of become this art district, which is amazing, to see that transition. I love where it’s headed now, and I hope it continues to go more artsy, rather than the whole gangster lifestyle. It was hard growing up in Culver City, but now I love it. It’s a beautiful place. I can’t picture myself living anywhere else, to tell the truth.

I got an early start in graffiti, mainly through seeing my uncle’s sketches and seeing the graffiti on the walls, the gangster writings, the Culver City gangster letters. And then meeting friends in high school, like my friend Alvaro Sanz, who really took it to the next level. I was just a freshman, and he was around 18 or something, and no one I knew besides him had a car at that time. He kind of took me around. I always took it into the sketchbooks, and he was the first person who gave me a spray can and said, "Hey, take what you’re doing in your sketchbook and let’s take it to the walls." And then I was doing a blockbuster and then taking it to the next level and designing alphabets and creating something out of it. Graffiti really helped me out, it helped me meet people. I met a lot of my friends through graffiti. You know, at a young age, either you’re going to get into that gangster lifestyle or the graffiti lifestyle — there wasn’t any other outlet other than that. This was my neighborhood at that time, and I picked graffiti.

My parents came here from Cambodia when I was four months old, and I never went back there until two years ago, and that’s when I met all these family members that swear they know me, they recognize me, I guess because I look so much like my dad. So I just wanted to bring some of that here, some of that love that was shown to me over there. And now people from Culver City will see that. This mural is inspired by the portraits I took while in Cambodia of family that I met for the first time. So it is a little bit of a family portrait thing. It’s cousins and aunts I met for the first time, and my mom’s side of the family and dad’s side of the family. It was amazing going there, and everyone coming up to you saying, "Hey, I’m your family, I’m your family." And you’re like, "Whoa, who are you, I never met you before." There was a whole town that was like that. They were related to me somehow. And I don’t have that many family members here, just a couple of cousins in Long Beach, and when we got over there, there was this huge family, so I wanted to document that, how happy I was over there, and try to bring it over here. You know, close family is something that I don’t have much of, and now they’re here, on this wall.

So a lot of graffiti crews have these names of their crews, like we’re the baddest, we’re the toughest, we're the most skillful in L.A., which we couldn’t claim, because it was totally not us, we were kind of the opposite of that. Our crew originally started as Down 2 Rock, and we started writing that for a while, but we realized that Dreams 2 Reality fit us better, that we had all these dreams that we wanted to accomplish. We were just young guys growing up in West L.A. and Pomona, and we had such high hopes. We wanted that voice heard. We wanted so much for people to see our work, and we thought that was impossible, because we came from such tiny places and the art world seemed so huge. But we didn’t want to give up, so we started thinking, "Hey, Dreams 2 Reality would better suit us," and we started pushing that pretty hard, and it’s been stuck with me ever since. No matter how old I am, I’m still gonna continue to push Dreams 2 Reality. I feel that slowly but surely, we’re taking steps to making our dreams come true. Still far from it, it’s gonna be a long path, but it’s getting there, slowly but surely.

Andrew Hem's solo exhibition "Cold Water" opens on Saturday, July 16th at LeBasse Projects in Culver City from 7-10pm. Come a little early to allow for Carmageddon delays and check out Andrew's new mural, just down the street at Washington and National. Also, if you get there early, you can take a look at Tran Nguyen's show next door at Thinkspace, which will be open from 5-8.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Tran Nguyen's Soul Medicine

Taking the less-traveled path as an alternative to pursuing a career in medicine, emerging artist Tran Nguyen aspires to heal hearts and souls through her enigmatic imagery. With a nod to turn-of-the-century fairy tale illustration and the spare, muscular paintings of Phil Hale, she creates compelling images meant to stir the depths of our psyches and compel us to confront the unresolved questions within us. Though her next solo show, "The Synapse Between Here & There," opens on Saturday, July 16th at Thinkspace, she carved out some time last week to answer a few questions.

"Treading Through an Untrimmed Memory"

Erratic Phenomena: Your parents grew up in Cần Thơ, a city in Vietnam's Mekong Delta region, with conflicts between the Viet Cong, the Khmer Rouge, the North and South Vietnamese military and the United States raging across the landscape for much of their childhood. By the time you were born in 1987, life was quieter in Vietnam, but still economically challenging. When did your family emigrate to the United States, and what finally drove them from their homeland? Do you have any childhood memories of Vietnam?

Tran Nguyen: My parents had a very harsh life, living in poverty from birth to adulthood. When my brothers and I were born, we lived in a small shack with dirt floors and had very little to eat. In 1990, my family was given the opportunity to migrate to the States. To the Vietnamese, the U.S. is a land of opportunity, so naturally we sold everything we had (our land, clothes, and house) to pay for the plane ride over. We literally came to the States with nothing, but with the help of the American government, donations, and my parents' hard work, we went from having nothing to having the finances to send me to Savannah College of Art and Design (which costs an arm and a leg). Unfortunately, I was three when we left, so I can't recall any early memories.

EP: Tell me a bit about your experience of growing up in Augusta, Georgia. How did your family cope with the transition to a new culture? What activities did you find most satisfying when you were young?

Tran: My parents deserve the utmost respect for having the courage to care for four rambunctious kids in an absolutely unfamiliar country and language. As everyone does, we adapted to the culture via trial and error. Timid in the new environment, my parents decided to situate the family in the countryside, which is probably why I'm more of the adventurer — being stuck in the middle of nowhere is exhausting. I was a rowdy kid, so I would climb trees, transformer boxes, fences and houses, as well as falling off of them, head-first. Oh, and I loved traveling, even if it was to the Walmart Superstore. To me, anywhere was somewhere.

EP: One of your brothers was also artistic, and encouraged your creative instincts. Could you tell me more about your siblings, and the influence they had on the development of your persona and your vision?

Tran: My oldest brother, Minh, was the one that sparked my interested in art. He drew these amazing renditions of Spawn, and like any kid sister, I wanted to be just like him. So, I made my own renditions of Sailor Moon, Rainbow Brite, and Care Bears. Unfortunately, my brother never pursued art, but fortunately, I did. My brothers and I were/are tightly knit. They're the catalyst in my endeavor to become an artist... I think I would have been a doctor if it wasn't for them.

"The Man with the Occupied Hands"

EP: A few years ago, your interest in psychology led you to read Bruce Moon's book Art and Soul, which brought you to a bit of an epiphany and focused your direction in life. Moon believes that art can help us contemplate our place in the universe, confront existential emptiness and search for understanding in the face of death. He concentrates on the therapeutic effect of making art, and teaches that stimulating the imagination fills the spiritual void and creates meaning in life. Could you tell me a bit more about the realization you came to when you first read Art and Soul?

Tran: I've always wanted to help others, but with art, I didn't know how applicable it could be. Moon's writings elaborated on the whats and whys of art for the mind and spirit, laying out the principles of therapy through visuals. With that, I became more insightful with my ideas in creating imagery for the sake of the viewer, making sure my paintings were personable yet unspecific, aesthetically pleasing yet discomforting.

"When You Leave Behind a Fragmented Memory"

EP: There is a school of thought that maintains that artists can serve a function similar to that of shamans in indigenous cultures, mediating between the physical and spiritual realms, healing sicknesses of the spirit and guiding people toward their true path. Do you see yourself purposely attempting to guide people in their encounters with their inner world and the collective consciousness?

Tran: Yes, it's to evoke introspection. I paint what I paint to target the inner depths of the psyche. I'm interested in rattling the unsettled emotions that we subconsciously keep in the very back of our minds, which in time will fester. Sooner or later, we'll have to tend to these unresolved emotions to sustain an able mentality. This is where (I hope) my imagery can be of use.

EP: Why do you think you are so drawn to the idea of helping people through art? Could your impulse toward healing be partly motivated by the emotional trauma your family experienced during the years of conflict and deprivation in Vietnam, and their difficult transition to life in another culture?

Tran: It's quite the opposite. Yes, my family had its share of hardship, but so have others. It's actually the compassion they've shown me that's fueled my use of art as a vehicle to help others. I've been very fortunate in life thus far, and I want the rest of the world, particularly the less-fortunate, to experience what I've experienced, learned, and loved.

EP: Did you ever experience any racially charged situations when you were young, and if so, how do you think that conflict affected your outlook on the world, and your approach to your art?

Tran: In the '90s, there were several incidents involving nasty racial slurs, but luckily, it wasn't an everyday obstacle. Since it was minuscule, there weren't significant dents made to my perspective as a person or an artist.

EP: Though you are Vietnamese, most of the people you depict in your work appear to be Caucasian. Why do you think you make this choice?

Tran: In college, I used to illustrate Asians in all of my work. Then a fellow classmate commented on its redundancy. Taking it in as a constructive criticism, I started painting features that weren't familiar to me. Recently, I've been trying to get the hang of painting dark-skinned figures. So far, I've been sucking.

EP: One of your earliest influences was Gustav Klimt, whose symbolist approach to painting evoked his belief in sexual freedom and his interest in Freudian theory, among other things. From his own life experience, filled with tragedy and loss, Klimt was convinced of the impotence of the medical profession to heal either the body or soul, and he expressed some of that anger in his mural "Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence." What excited you most about Klimt's work when you first saw it, and how has your relationship to it changed as you have evolved as an artist? Do you think he recognized the healing power of art?

Tran: I was very superficial when I first came across Klimt's work. I only paid attention to his beautiful figures and patterns. As I matured and learned more about him, I realized the depth of his work, symbolism, and psychological intentions. Klimt's recognition of therapeutic imagery was on a personal level, in that he found art-making a vessel to paradise, releasing his own pain and frustration. As for me, there are traces of myself in my work but, ultimately, the imagery is created solely for the viewer, and not so much for my personal ordeals. I think we both agree that art is a rehabilitative tool, it's just that our intentions differ.

"If the World Keeps Churning, Turning"

EP: While your recent work is remarkable, especially for such a young painter, there is still something about it that is a bit careful and calculated. As an artist, could you ever see yourself embracing the kind of freedom, rebellion and emotional nakedness that makes Klimt's work so revelatory today, nearly 100 years after his death?

Tran: I think as young artists, our primary focus is to hone our raw skills so that we can grasp art through a structured learning process. Then in later years, when we've overcome all the fundamentals of art, we unlearn them, become self-expressive, and paint as a child would, without artistic restraint. Just like Klimt and Picasso. This is where we paint purely with our "naked" mind.

"Sleeping with a Constellation"

EP: Like Klimt, you have taken to using the flat planes of gold leaf in your work, usually to create suspended geometric patterns which interact with the painted elements behind them. Though there is order and repetition in these floating grids, it is clear that they are physical — they shift position, cast shadows and slide between layers of the image behind them. How does the dimensional quality of gold leaf — raised flatness combined with the false depth of luster — "read" to you on an emotional level? Do these permeable curtains help you create a sort of tension between the viewer and the image?

Tran: Definitely — the juxtaposition of flat shapes and rendered figures creates a surreal void, facilitating the idea that the painting is not a representation of a tangible world, but of a psychological one. These "permeable curtains" may be flat, but they are filled with symbolic depth, representing the clusters of feelings that make one complete emotion. The shapes also create spatial depth, which I find irrational, peculiar, yet intriguing.

"Our Flutter-some Ordeal"

EP: Gold leaf has a long history of use in Japanese art, such as the screen paintings of the Kanō and Rimpa schools, as well as many other Asian decorative traditions. Besides your reference to Klimt, are there also Asian cultural allusions in your use of gilded elements?

Tran: Consciously, no. Then again, when I was younger, I do recall my fascination with the gold embroideries on Chinese blankets and the gold-embellished designs on Asian food packages. So subconsciously, maybe?

EP: You generally work on paper in colored pencil and dilute washes of acrylic, which allows for the luminosity of watercolor, with a good deal more control. How did you come to settle on this technique? What do you find most enjoyable and most frustrating about your chosen medium?

Tran: I emulated a lot of other artists when I was in school. After some fails, I decided to further my skills with acrylics by dedicating my "Drawing on a Theme" class to exploring its tendencies on different surfaces. Later, I found color pencil to be a remarkable sidekick. Acrylics generally act like watercolors, except watercolors lack in permanence and versatility. The only issue I have with it is its difficulties with building contrast. My technique is glazing, which is painstakingly time-consuming. However, the subtle gradients that I can achieve from it are something I haven't been able to find in other media.

EP: Much of your work has a sensibility and atmosphere reminiscent of turn-of-the-century fantasy illustration, such as the work of Edmund Dulac and Maxfield Parrish. Are there particular illustrators from that era who have inspired you, and what aspects of their work do you find most compelling?

Tran: Kay Nielsen, Arthur Rackham, and Elenore Abbott are among the many that I look to for inspiration. Nielsen and Abbott have this incredible ability to incorporate ornamental designs into their work, not to mention their sense of composition. As for Rackham, I'm compelled by the eerie and dark moods he's able to depict in his illustrations.

EP: Like many of your contemporaries, including Eric Fortune and João Ruas, you have been deeply influenced by the muscular, dynamic paintings of Phil Hale. What qualities of his work speak to you most profoundly?

Tran: What intrigues me about Hale's paintings are his static yet dynamic figures. They're sharp, vibrant, tense, yet simultaneously stiff. No only that, but I've always had great respect for artists who execute negative space effectively.

EP: For many traditional Asian families who are struggling hard to succeed in life, it is difficult to conceive of painting as a viable profession. How hard was it to convince your parents that you needed to study art? With the success you've had so far, have they begun to realize that you took the right path?

Tran: You've no idea. Like most Asian parents, they wanted me to be a doctor, so I could offer medical service for the locals back home. Can't say they were filled with rainbows and bunnies when I told them I wanted to paint for a living, but of course, my parents are awesome and understanding. Once I had shown them how hard I was willing to work, they stopped their badgering and gave me their trust.

EP: Is there an underappreciated artist working today whom you wish would get more attention?

Tran: I don't know if I would say he's under-appreciated, but I'd love for him to get more attention — Vincent Hui. He creates these esoteric visuals of clustered figures that are usually erratic.

EP: If you could have just one classic artwork from history in your studio, what would it be?

Tran: That's like asking me who I would choose to save if the house was burning down. Hmmm, well, I would have to say Bastien-Lepage's "Joan of Arc." I saw it in person and it's EPIC.

EP: Is there anything else you're finding really inspiring right now?

Tran: The Illustration Master Class. I had the privilege of attending the workshop last month, and it's the most artistically invigorating week I've had in a very, very long time. Spending a week making art around others who share your passion is a remarkable experience. Before leaving for the trip, I was hitting brick walls while working on my upcoming solo show, so the experience helped rekindle my creativity.

EP: Tell me a bit about what we can expect to see at your upcoming Thinkspace solo show, "The Synapse Between Here & There." Are there specific aspects of the psyche that you've been mining for this exhibition?

Tran: Oh, yes — the show prominently focuses on the conditions of the psyche. "The Synapse Between Here & There" is a further development of the concept behind my previous show, "Nurturing the Uneased Soul." Instead of focusing on the tribulations in life, I'm interested in representing the human mind, in physical form, as it responses to a universal circumstance. It's the personification of a psychological impulse, with a splash of surrealism and a pint of fantasy.

"What the World Doesn't Know"

EP: Hopes, dreams, plans for the future?

Tran: Conquer the (art) world.

Tran Nguyen's next solo show, "The Synapse Between Here & There," opens on Saturday, July 16th at Thinkspace in Culver City.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Andrew Hem destroys Culver City!

Over the past four days, Andrew Hem has been painting his largest mural yet on an abandoned building in Culver City. Sometime tomorrow afternoon it will reach completion, so drop by Washington and National and check it out if you're in the neighborhood. I will post more about it in a few days, but in the meantime, make sure to mark your calendar for Andrew's upcoming solo show, "Cold Water," which opens at LeBasse Projects on Saturday, July 16th. It's going to be epic.

When you stop by, make sure to say hey to Andrew and his girl Simone!