TAMMY NGUYEN

CH.89: If you were to categorize or describe the style of your artwork, what would it be and why?

TN: I am an observational painter and publisher.

TN: I have been called a surrealist or a neo-surrealist a few times, and I have spent a lot of time thinking about why the work is categorized this way. I suppose it is because there is a whimsy in the combination of subjects and magical or fantasy quality to the compositions and colors. However, I spend a lot of time studying subjects from life and photographs. When I paint, I try to use my mark-making in a way that is not “rendering” the subject. Let’s take a leaf for example, rather than painting a leaf by shaping it with a spectrum of tones, my leaves tend to be two hues that are both drawn elements, one for the entirety of the leaf— maybe I’ll draw it with a fat Chinese calligraphy bush, and the other hue for the veins— that’s it. In the making of this form, I practice and practice the subject until I can make the leaf in a few clear and swift movements. Mark-making is like translating what I see of the source subject “rewritten” on a flat plane.

TN: I am publisher because I founded and am the editor of Passenger Pigeon Press. Each season of the year, I edit, design, and physically create (with my lovely assistant Téa) 200 editions of Martha’s Quarterly, an artist book subscription that addresses political topics in nuanced ways by bringing together contributors of disparate spheres. Aside from this, we also publish collaborative artists books, like our recent one on uranium mining in the Grand Canyon and the Nevada Test Site called Atomic Sublime with Bombshelltoe.

CH.89: Where do you draw your inspiration from?

TN: Wow, I think I am porous to everything in my life, but there seems to be several topics that keep entering the work: tropical environments, the South China Sea, Flags, Yellow people, Greek mythology, tropical fauna, food, eyes, reflections, tropical flora, Vietnam, Hawaii, Indonesia, Philippines, Lake Merced, caves, rocks, ceramic vessels, foreign policy, One Belt One Road, the Southwest, colonialism, explorer’s diaries, military projects, soft power, beaches for tourists and the military at the same time (Subic Bay/Waikiki), Harlem, Chinatowns, double consciousness… just to name a few.

CH.89: Can you talk a little bit about what your creative thought process is like when starting a new project/ piece of artwork?

TN: All of my bodies of work are heavily research based and usually involve disparate bodies of knowledge or interests that eventually converge into a cohesive, multi-layered entity.

TN: For example, my big project right now is called Phong Nha, The Making of an American Smile. The work centers around one text that is being published by Ugly Duckling Presse. It involves four main narratives and many sub-narratives under each of those four trajectories. The four themes are: 1. a girl born without two of her front teeth, 2. a history of how the Phong Nha Karst was created, 3. a description of the Forest City development in Malaysia, 4. Allegory of the Cave from Plato’s Republic. Within those four stories there are recurring themes about porcelain, light, land, fake vs real, and good and evil.

TN: From this actual book, there will be multiple bodies of art work that will emerge. Among them are paintings of cave environments, forest landscapes, wood carvings, porcelain vessels, and even a performance featuring Socrates and his pupil.

TN: However, to get to the writing of the book that leads to the visual art, there was an intense period of learning. Reading other peoples’ work or related scholarship is involved, but also, I went caving in Phong Nha, I pretended to be an investor to tour Forest City, I have been throwing pots, and attending as many related theatrical performances that I can.

CH.89: Is there anything in particular that you would want people to take from your artwork?

TN: I hope that my viewers could be seduced and confused. I have been really interested in “confusion” for the last several years and I find that confusion can be a space for radical thinking because you can choose to be complacent or be forced to reckon with your set of beliefs. There is a lot of risk here because complacency is a wonderful and cozy place and having to work at (a new) clarity is difficult and might not even be worth it.

TN: When I bring this into my artwork— many of my subjects are derivative of larger issues I am perpetually confused by. I am confused about ethics, right and wrong, transnational identities, human relationships to trade and war, and more. So, in my paintings, when you literally see a Cyclops placed in a Vietnamese refugee camp, it provokes an obscurity that I hope can agitate the viewer inconclusively.

CH.89: Can you talk a little bit about your lifestyle as an artist and what that is like?

TN: Well, it’s a hustle!

TN: On days that I teach, I wake up at 5:30 am, make coffee, eat breakfast, watch the news, maybe load the dishwasher— I cannot be rushed in the morning, or the whole day is ruined. I am out the door at 7am and my commute is 45 minutes long. On the way, I am always listening to a podcast. My favorites are The Ezra Klein Show, Hidden Brain, and Lexicon Valley— there are many others, but those are consistently good. I start teaching at 8:15, but usually around 10 am, I may have a few hours open to either do teacher’s “mise en place” (preparing materials, cleaning, emailing) or I do my studio admin stuff, like getting back on emails etc. Around this time, I check in with my studio assistant Téa who will be on her way to my studio to work on books, edit my writing, make deliveries, pick up materials, among many other tasks. Then, I teach in the afternoon and by 3:30 I am en route to studio work.

TN: From 4pm til around 6pm or 9pm, I might be at the Center for Book Arts, the pottery studio, my big painting studio in Yonkers, or my small studio in Harlem making work. If it’s a shorter studio day— because I am tired— I will make dinner for my husband and me, or get hot pot with my friend Emmy— I love cooking and eating hot pot.

TN: On most weeknights, I go for a swim at 9:30pm until 10:15. Then I have a cup of Celestial Sleepytime Tea and then it’s off to bed.

TN: On days when I am only a studio artist, I wake up at 7, have a coffee, watch the news, and I start to make bread dough— I have been really interested in bread lately. I’ll then eat breakfast, and then take a walk to the grocery store— I love food shopping.

TN: When I am back at my apartment, I start to write or draw while cooking something more complicated, like something that takes hours— like pho. Around noon, I’ll either go for a swim or head to my studio in Yonkers where all of my physically big projects are. I’ll work there until 6 pm or 8 pm and I’ll usually have a plan as to what I’ll do— do all of the underpainting for 4 paintings, or apply metal leaf onto 8 paintings, or prep 35 panels for next month. I work at a fast and steady pace and then I leave for home. By this time, my food that has been slow simmering will be ready and my bread dough would have risen. I bake, bring out dinner, and if I hadn’t gone for a swim yet, then I will at around 8:30-9pm.

CH.89: When starting out an artistic task, do you think it is better to have a particular direction/set plan guiding your way? Or, is it better to act on impulse and go from there?

TN: I think this totally depends on the artist. Everyone is different.

CH.89: What is one major lesson you’ve learned as an artist thus far?

TN: To be patient with my work— to give it time to breath, and to never work when I am tried.

CH.89: Do you regard personal style & taste to be of highest importance?

TN: I don’t know about “highest importance”— but I do think that it is a reflection of your experiences and your values and that’s of high (maybe not highest) importance.

CH.89: What do you consider to be the hardest thing about being an artist?

TN: How to balance a life where you can be financially stable, have ample time to create work, receive opportunities and recognition for your artwork, and have plenty of quality time for family and friends.

CH.89: What is one thing you love about being an artist?

TN: I love the solitude of working with my interests and my inner self. There is something about creative work, both seeing it and making it, that I liken to salvation— that the experiences with art will deliver us away from spiritual poverty.

CH.89: Is there anyone in particular, any artist’s that inspire you in any way?

TN: My friend Rafael Sanchez is a remarkable performance artist and I think that he really lives his creative work in line with my answer above. He makes performances for important moments or people in his life as a way to record/honor the relationship.

TN: A month ago, Raf called and said, “I need to do a performance with you before 2020” — it was Nov. 27th or something— “You’ll need to wake up early, and Davey (my husband) will have to follow me in your car and we are going to the woods, OK!?” I said okay.

TN: A week later, Raf texted and asked, “What is one piece of piano music that means a lot to you.” I sent him Bach Invention No. 13, which was one of my favorite piano pieces to play while I was growing up. (I also just like Bach Inventions because when they were originally written for harpsichord they did not have any written-in dynamics— the crescendos and decrescendos of volume are implied by the structure of the notation.)

TN: On the day of, Raf drove over to my apartment with his mom and we followed him to a wooded park in Tarrytown, about a half hour or so away from Harlem (where we all live). He had a bag of knick knacks: a tie-dyed blanket, bells, yard, 2 abstract paintings, a fold-up table, a boom box, a sleeping back, and a fold up chair. Then he ushered to follow him into the woods where we kept walking into an open field that was sprinkled with ice— it was 24 degrees.

TN: The blanket was spread out with the folding table, boom box on top, and I plopped into the chair with the sleeping bag around me. Davey and Raf’s mom were video recording it. Then Raf said, put a timer on for 2 minutes then press play. Then, he took off his coat and literally ran away really, really fast. The boombox played a bunch of birds chirping, a bunch of sonic sci-fi-ish sounds, and then Bach Invention No. 13. came on.

TN: From another far side of this field, we see Raf running really really fast towards us covered in a fuchsia sheet with a very large white balloon extending into the sky with a big spool of blue yarn. When he finally came close to me, he unraveled more of the yarn to let the balloon travel higher and higher into the sky. With his wrists unrolling the string, the bells (that are attached to him) jingled. Then, he threw the spool in such a way that in continued to unravel the yarn, further extending the balloon into the sky.

TN: Raf did several movements: flips, one legged stands, slow cartwheels, figure 8’s with his arms, and others. Sage was burnt, the balloon was popped, sky blue pigment was sprinkled into the air and the performance was done.

TN: I am not allowed to talk about this for 48 hours to anyone else except Davey. I am telling you about it now— it’s been 72 hours.

CH.89: What do you think of technology in terms of being a useful tool for artists today?

TN: Why not?

CH.89: Do you think being an artist allows you to view the world differently from those who don’t follow creative paths?

TN: Yes and no.

TN: I think that folks who possess a heterodox mindset are able to view the world differently. I think that such an individual mindset is unbound to whatever you do, you could be a doctor, an engineer, a clown, a gardener, or an artist and still be trapped by the parameters or modes of thinking dictated by your context. I think that working through your own thought process is extremely hard.

TN: I think that there is a tendency for some artists to be better at working through their own thought process (which allows them to view the world differently) because each artist sets their own standard— visual art is one of the few fields where there is no overall standard, when you walk into an artist’s studio, that’s their brain, and whatever logic is there, is the one in command.

CH.89: Do you enjoy traveling? If so, do you have a favorite city?

TN: I love traveling! But no, I don’t have a favorite city.

CH.89: Do you have a favorite author or book?

TN: Soccer in Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano

CH.89: Any future goals or plans for your artwork?

TN: I will make more! But I would love to create something even bigger. I have dreams of creating building sized inflatables and producing an opera.

CH.89: What does being an artist mean to you?

TN: I don’t know.

CH.89: What’s the last song you listened to?

TN: Torn by Ava Max. 🙂

CH.89: Any last words on the aesthetic of your artwork?

TN: I really like creating space by putting opaque and transparent shapes next to each other.

CHECK OUT MORE ON: TAMMY NGUYEN

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