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.

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