Tammy Nguyen, Studio Visit & Interview

September 19, 2014 |


SATW: You are currently working on a number of different exciting projects and I have always been impressed by your immaculate work ethic and determination. Tell us about some of your current and upcoming projects.

TN: Right now, I have two solo shows up both of which were created during the last year.  One is called Hermes, the Epiphytes at Wave Hill; the other is Chickens of the Torrid Summer, at the Norwalk Community College. They are thematically and materially different but are both continuations of my fascination with human contradictions.

Chickens of the Torrid Summer is my imagination of war and “epic violence”. It is one iteration that displays my wonder with the Vietnam War through the relatable, or at least identifiable, proxy of a chicken— as bird, fighter, rooster, mother, and poultry. I feel deeply a part and totally distanced from the Vietnam War.  I am part of its aftermath and/or afterlife as the American-born daughter of Vietnamese refugees—thriving with no memory of war, constantly frustrated that I don’t understand it.

The show consists of prints and paintings.  The prints diagram chickens twisting around in a rectangular frame, as if embryonic. They also look like illuminated manuscripts sharing information about double-yolked eggs amidst a jungle made of Vietnam War comic book foliage.  A series of paintings display chickens with their skin being removed— their eyeballs roll around in fat, and a thick air of polluted grey. A diptych presents a cock fighter and his eyes/ future eggs/ a nest.

The reflections present in this show have led me to a new project I am working on now.  I am not sure where it is it going yet, but I’ll start from the beginning. Years ago, I was driving around Saigon, and I found an old US military document which is a researched plan to reconstruct Danang, a large city in central Vietnam. This document, written in 1969, identifies Saigon as a “primate city”— a city isolated by rural and inadequate areas that is large and growing so quickly that it absorbs the country’s resources projecting an unstable national future. Thus, this article makes an urgent case for the development of Danang for the prosperity of modern Vietnam.

Part of the reason Danang is so attractive is that its geography can be advantageous:  it has a large river that runs through it, a beach, a bay, and is surrounded by mountains. Danang is also a significant location for military strategy and many world powers had its eye on it— the French got there in the 17th century and named it Tourane. I took the opportunity last summer to use this document as a guide to survey contemporary Danang. I was really compelled by the term “primate city” and I was also lucky to find an endangered species of langurs that live on Son Tra Mountain— the mountain that housed the US military base during the Vietnam War. With the help of a local naturalist, I studied the langurs and I am now developing a new fiction where these primates and the military document can transform into something new, something twisted. Very excited about this, so please stay tuned!


SATW: How did you come upon birds as a main subject in your work and how do they function in your pieces?

TN: The birds became a dominant subject two years ago when I was making a body of work about family, traditionalism, my Vietnamese heritage, and my love-hate opinions of all of it. I was reflecting on ancestor worship and making images of my grandmother transforming into creatures that were sentimental to my childhood such as dinosaurs, robots, cougars, and birds. At this point, the bird stood for what death could transform into, one of my many imaginations of reincarnation. Then, Sam Messer (my professor at Yale), asked me if I had ever thought about studying birds. Of course I hadn’t, but then I did with Richard Prum, a profoundly inspirational ornithologist and evolutionary biologist at Yale.

After taking a course on evolution, ornithology, and then also doing some taxidermy for the Peabody Museum, I began to illustrate stories from natural sciences. But, as if a secret concept, I would interchange the words evolution and tradition so that they could mean the same thing and challenge each other. As I did this, I found myself more free to invent. Stories of strange species freely incorporated themselves into my world. The avian world is just like the human world! There are birds that kidnap others’ children, those that have many lovers, and those that stick to one. Oddly, when I look at the depiction of animals, I can see more about myself and human relationships. I am also more open to how I could be wrong and I feel more tolerant of others. This is destabilizing; I love that and I am still talking about my grandmother.

SATW: I love your mix of the mythological and the scientific in your work and am particularly impressed by the text you’ve written for your book, Hermes, the Epiphytes. Can you tell us a little about this text and that juxtaposition and how you hope it might function?

TN: The texts in these books are my original poems, which simultaneously retell Greek myths and explain specific plant morphologies.  All three narratives are told from the point of view of Hermes who has transformed into epiphytes (the books themselves are shaped in human-plant forms). They intend to seduce, confuse, and then destabilize the reader/viewer. Before I wrote the poems, I spent a lot of time looking, learning, and drawing epiphytes, or air plants. Epiphytes are funny trickster-like plants. They are benevolent and mischievous as they cling onto host plants (like trees) for support.  This is so that they can gain the most nutritious proportions of sun and water. To me, this trait is very similar to humans seeking opportunity; and this comparison became the jumping point for the books.

I asked my friend and colleague Bruce King, a classics scholar, if he had any thoughts on tricksters, or even the connection between botanics and mythology. He suggested that I think about Hermes, the popular trickster of Greek mythology—the messenger for the gods and kind protector of travelers and thieves.  Separately, Bruce also described a frequent Homeric analogy between plants, particularly shoots and flowers, to heroes, youth, and beauty. The perfect death of a hero should be when he is young and beautiful much like a flower that dies in full bloom. As heroes are half mortals, they can only come close to immortality through an early death in their highest moment as they become preserved in literature and poetry. This idea is so beautiful to me; it resonates with horror and delight; it is scary, contains anxiety, yet also hope all at the same time.

From this idea, I wrote the poems with this fantasy: What if Hermes had turned into epiphytes, and each epiphyte was a messenger that sent stories where classic myths were explained and intertwined with biologically true descriptions of plants?  What if the plants among us are the characters in the myths?

“Hermes, the Epiphytes,” is a direct simile, obviously fictitious.  However, as the scientific information emerges in the narratives, and the images waver between illustrative and suggestive— what began as metaphor could feel like it has more real-life urgency. In one book, Achilles is the epiphyte Bromelia neoregelia. Achilles is also the hero who should die in full bloom. In real life, the Bromelia neoregelia turns deep red when it is about to bloom—like the entire plant turns red. Then, soon after the flower blooms, the plant dies and another plant must start anew. I hope that by making Achiles the Bromelia neoregelia, tension is created, like a simultaneity between life and death. I want my reader to feel that myth and biology exist on such a co-dependent equilibrium that their comfort in faith and science is replaced with friction— the kind of two identical magnets repelling each other. (more…)

Samuel Jablon’s Word:Play at Freight+Volume

September 9, 2014 |

by Meena Hasan with Cal Siegel


Text based art practice is not an easy endeavor, albeit a noble pursuit within our hyper-visual, daily lives. Artists attempting these methods find out quickly how vast the shadow cast by Holzer, Ruscha, Nauman, Kruger et al can be. With such a strong tradition, creativity of presentation as well as impeccable text selection are paramount. This is where Samuel Jablon excels. The title of his first solo exhibition at Chelsea’s Freight + Volume Gallery, Word:Play sums up nicely the tone of these paintings as both a visually playful and structurally complicated group.

Word:Play is literalized as the eye bounces between the concrete word and the playful painterly quality of the works. The title expands to Word = Play, Word…Play, Word;Play, (Word)Play, Word(Play) etc. The paintings are perceptually complex, interchanging layers of ready-made tiles with colorful acrylic paints. As a result, many of the works have a slow-read, featuring words within words and multiple dimensions of meaning. Most notably, in Jablon’s piece, ‘Forget’ my first read, due I’m sure to my own silly character as well as the differing tiles used was, “NEED WEED”. This read induced an immediate chuckle, followed by embarrassment when I realized that more words are featured in the painting. Once I read the painting’s entire statement: “ALL WE NEED IS To FORGET”, my shame transformed to understanding and appreciation. Weed can have powerful effects on the memory and, perhaps, my initial read was in fact intended. This experience of looking at ‘Forget’ felt similar to a child-like inside-joke related to the often controversial act of “reading” a painting and, ultimately, I felt welcomed into Jablon’s painted world of language.

Jablon’s mark making tool of tiles emphatically embraces, but also transcends the tiles’ innate decorative qualities as they shimmer and obscure the act of looking. The tiles serve as ambiguous punctuations, and their solidity playfully contrasts with the concrete, signifying nature of the language itself. The use of tiles also allows for a performative quality in the works, tying into Jablon’s own poetry and performance practices where language is transformed through action. For example, in the beautiful monochromatic work ‘America Dreams’, Jablon uses the tiles to stamp out areas, where the absence of paint becomes confused with the presence of solid tile objects. The entire painting has the shallow depth and glisten of a tiled surface. The work also emphasizes a dream-like quality where language and meaning moves in and out of vision, disappearing into a blue void while also rising clearly to the surface.

Samuel Jablon’s first solo show, Word:Play opened August 21st and is on view until September 20th at Freight + Volume, 530 West 24th Street.


All photographs courtesy of the artist.


Amy Giovanna Rinaldi

July 4, 2014 |


Where do you find the supports for your paintings and sculptures?

Each piece goes through a different construction process.  Some of my armatures are made from cut steel and wood – conceived and drawn out before being constructed.  This process is used when I react to a surface material that must be weighted or stretched in a specific way. 
Other sculptures have been born out of the love of found objects.  Parts of chairs, wine racks, back scratchers, and mop handles are collected and remade to eventually serve as an armature for the piece.

Amy Giovanna Rinaldi, Bushwick, Brooklyn, New York


Chelsea Cup Part 1

June 25, 2014 |

25th Street: Joan Mitchell v Joan Mitchell v Joel Shapiro

by Meena Hasan

The contemporary art galleries in Chelsea often function as if they were a World Cup football tournament. Each gallery is a distinct team with its own colors and energy (just imagine Hauser & Wirth as the fun-loving, stylish team of Brazil, David Zwirner as cool, clean Germany, Gagosian as well groomed Spain and Sikemma Jenkins taking the odd-ball, unbeatable Netherlands).

A gallery picks, chooses, grooms and manicures their specific team-members over a period of a few years in preparation for their public debut. The teams are then pitted against each other in groups, or in city blocks as this case may be. They embrace their status as participants in their ‘contact-sport’ by competing  in close proximity with each other, shoving, fouling, assisting, dancing, passing and stretching.

On my most recent visit to Chelsea I could see the yellow cards flying through the air and I could hear the sound of friendly butt-slaps as the teams and players sweatily battled it out. Cheim & Read, now showing an energetic exhibition of Joan Mitchell’s Trees, shares a friendly banter with their neighbor across the street, Lennon, Weinberg Inc., currently showing Mitchell’s The Black Drawings and Related Works 1964 – 1967.

The pairing of the two shows offers a comprehensive look at Mitchell’s distinct and physical mark-making, as well as her ideas about color, light and composition. Her Black Drawings, many of which are also of trees, stand strong across the street from her singularly gorgeous painting, Tilleul (Linden Tree), 1978. I appreciate seeing the pages ripped out of her sketchbook that offer not just preparatory views for a big painting, but also intimate and personal works in and of themselves that are full of experiential emotion. There is an admirable variety as each drawing explores the many variations on the color black in a delightfully surprising manner, moving effortlessly between drawing and painting mediums.

Down the street from Lennon, Weinberg Inc. is another show of works on paper by Joel Shapiro at Pace Gallery. I am a big fan of works on paper because, for some reason, they can be treated as less precious and sometimes reveal a directness in the artist’s touch. In other words, the paper can hold all the secrets. So, I was happily surprised to find myself at two shows, back to back, consisting primarily of drawings.

Joel Shapiro’s works on paper are directly related to his sculptures. They depict odd bulbous forms swimming around their pages. The drawings are sometimes folded to create a symmetry of form. They are made of gouache and charcoal, which at times, meet quite happily to create effective textures, patterns and tonal forms. A number of the works on paper, located at the back of the gallery, depict figures created out of the pressure of folds and pushes. The figures are made of mirrored forms, such as pin-wheel arms and levitating spirits that are sometimes lying or sitting at tables, alluding to an autopsy of an alien half-living corpse. These last pictures frame the others in the context of the human body, our own anatomy and human organs.

Both Joan Mitchell’s Black Drawings and Joel Shapiro’s Works on Paper reveal the two artists’ disciplined exploration of their own repeating forms and compositions. Shapiro’s takes on a more formal attitude that just touches the edge of humor, while Mitchell’s works display her inclination towards sincere emotional expression. Many of Shapiro’s works lack the painterly exploratory touch that Mitchell embraces wholeheartedly. Instead Shapiro strives for a pooling of material that creates the effect of a disorienting and weightless accumulation in motion.

Joan Mitchell’s drawings might represent a projection of the inner psyche onto the outside world whereas Joel Shapiro’s might serve as imagined close observations of our own bodies. Both shows have their merits and faults and both are visually playful in their varieties within repetition. Luckily, there are no goals or stats in Chelsea and certainly no objective winner to declare (of course, if I were discussing the buying and selling of art, or anything outside of the simple activity of looking and creating visual dialogues, that would be a whole other story). Instead we remain in an endlessly looped all-star game rife with substitutions, dirty fouls and the occasional mutual respect.



In Belated Advance: Jan Verwoert’s, ‘Cookie!’

June 16, 2014 |

By Calvin Siegel

Another mode of performing the ‘I Can’t’ in the key of the ‘I Can’ that art and poetry have always used to great effect is to create moments in which meaning remains provocatively latent. To embrace latency goes against the grain of the logic of high performance. The appraisal of latency  restores dignity to the unsaid, the unshown, and everything that can’t be dragged out into the open in the rush of high performance when the value of all our potentials appears to depend entirely on our capacity to actualize them right here, right now.

-Jan Verwoert, Exhaustion And Exuberance-Ways to Defy the Pressure to Perform, 2008


In today’s high-performance society it has become too easy to not only exchange the big picture for the necessities of the moment, but to use the caustic tools of irony and skepticism to mock its scope in general. In many of our art-related dialogues, we have become our own little islands, firing on all cylinders toward a goal that, perhaps we have misunderstood from the get-go.

Enter Jan Verwoert, the fresh faced, young scholar hailing from The Netherlands’ Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam. Verwoert applies a surgeons analytics to such fundamental topics as the pressure to perform, love and relationships, and why criticism hurts.  His self-inspective style of writing and broad choice of themes serve as both a magnifying glass and a telescope, focusing intensely on basic, overlooked moments while connecting them to a bigger, more thorough picture than we have yet seen.

Jan Verwoert has a new collection of essays out called, Cookie! published by the Piet Zwart Institute and Sternberg Press, who also published his previous collection from 2007 titled, Tell Me What You Want, What You Really, Really Want.


Studio Visit Strategies

May 6, 2014 |

The art of the studio visit is an endlessly fickle and complex form, clouded in mystery because of its intimate, private nature. There are two or more people, sometimes strangers, immersed in the artist’s cultivated environment. They act as witnesses to that artist’s deepest beliefs, secrets and desires. These witnesses either aim to become the artist’s compatriot, to steal from the artist, or to shop as if they were in a thrift store. It is a dance, a chess game, an OkCupid date, a conquest and, at least in part, up to fate.


The gestures of ‘sizing things up’, ‘checking things out’ or ‘looking up and down’ run rampant. First people look the building up and down, then the stairway and then, of course, the studio space. This, for the more frugal of us, provides some small talk, “Wow, how many square feet is this place? How did you find it? Do you mind me asking how much it is?” etc. Then we start checking each other out, which soon becomes intermingled with checking the artwork out. And so it goes, back and forth, trying to find the link between the objects and the person and a point at which to immerse oneself or penetrate even.

One might expect certain questions and receive them all with relieved and open arms. On the other hand, one might be slapped across the face by something unexpected and either crumble under the pressure or find courage despite your smarting cheek. Best of all, you could be asked exactly the questions you have been searching for your whole life, those that have been burning deep inside your subconscious for years. If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in this last situation, the earth might shift beneath your feet as everything you thought you knew becomes informed by your visitor’s generous insight.

Here are twenty tips that I have witnessed or performed myself (although, obviously, everything will change a bit depending on the reality of your situation). You are welcome to take or discard them for your next studio visit, whether you are the visitor or the visitee. You are also welcome to just have a laugh. These are little secrets of our trade that might help you better direct (or redirect) the energy of your next visit.


1. Beware of jutting saws and planks.

2. Bring a 6 pack of beer per two-three persons, no more no less (just enough to make you smile).

3. And one or two non-alcoholic options, like a bottle of sparkling strawberry lemonade.

4. Locate the best seat in the studio as quickly as possible and resume the throne.

5. Have three to five spots on your walls prepped for hanging various things and trade your objects out as the visit progresses. Keep it fresh and spacious.

6. Hang sketches, doodles or source imagery off to the side. If they are noticed, that person is looking closely and displaying interest in the artist’s practice, not just their distinct pieces.


8. Keep your hands behind your back while nodding frequently, it’s respectful.

9. If your eyes wander, find and stare at a specific spot on the floor or wall where you can hallucinate the spoken ideas or descriptions.

10. During an awkward pause that lasts forever, just pretend you’re playing the Silent Game, and you’re winning.

11. Crouch as if you were a jaguar about to pounce on your prey (or in this case the artwork being discussed).

12. Try to caress the art object with your eyeball, literally brushing over the object’s surface with your eyelashes. It shows you really, really care.

13. Smell the art object, why not? If it smells good, go in for the finger lick.

14. Offer your visitor a reclining chair for a quick nap. And maybe some home-baked cookies.

15. Display your strength as a Herculean artist by lifting panels and MDF boards as if they were made of Nerf foam (this will encourage god-like treatment).

16. Wedding walk towards a painting (imagine that you will be spending the rest of your life with it) and then take three large fugitive leaps backwards. And again.

17. Respond to a forlorn and lost expression by pulling out a book from your studio library. This offers some context for your work as well as something outside of the moment to talk about.

18. If the person you are talking to speaks insanely fast, respond by speaking veeerrrry slowly and visa versa.

19. Share personal stories carefully: use them to break the ice or as a gesture of friendship or as a secret that that person is privileged to hear.

20. Touch everything.

My Tool Box: The Floral Hammer

April 8, 2014 |

My good friend gave me a lovely, but curious gift for the holidays: a slightly smaller, far daintier-than-most hammer. The head of the hammer is a glossy white, green, red and black floral pattern that vaguely references no specific South Asian or East Asian art (my best guess would be that it draws from Indonesia’s lyrical floral patterns). The metal base of the hammer unscrews to reveal a Phillips head screwdriver that has other attachments screwed into its own base. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a hammer so specifically designed for women before, the hammer itself has a certain feminine quality, not because of the pattern but most importantly because of it’s slender frame and delicate head. This object has self-awareness and a very direct way of addressing women, specifically.  I like looking at it, but I am also adamantly refusing to use it for some reason (probably because I don’t want to be who it says I am), instead it is an object that rests on my dresser to be admired. My strange relationship with this hammer is even further complicated by the fact that I often have a hard time finding tools that suite my body.  Last summer, my studio-mates and I built partitions, which involved drilling hundreds of aluminum screws. Every third screw would present itself as impossible, I just couldn’t find the right leverage, is what I’ve decided. I’ve also noticed that when holding many of my tools, my fingers are sticking out all over the place, on the verge of a pinky-out look. I just can’t seem to get a good grip on most tools like hammers, wrenches, chop-saws, jig-saws, tin snips etc. My relationship to building with tools, then, is an issue of bodily proportion, scale, gravity and grip. hammer (opt 1) I’d like to propose to start imagining what an ideal tool might look like, one that suits all body sizes and finger lengths. The first thought is how to make a tool more flexible; how to give a tool the characteristics that enable it to be sensitive and respond to the individual needs of its user. I’d like to meet a tool that can self-customize. I used to embrace my role as a pre-teen consumer and would obsess over and crave things like beanie babies, Lisa Frank stickers and, the most expensive of all: the Sensa Pen. This pen has a gel like substance around the area where your fingers would go: it squishes and molds to your grip. Would it not be wonderful to have a transformational soft material that can create an individualized, renewed grip each and every time it is held? Obviously this would mean a serious upgrade to the Sensa gel: it would need to be thicker and I’d want it to have a skin-like quality, transforming the tool into an extension of one’s own body. It would be the definition of flexibility, accommodation and acceptance. My other thought is that I wish tools were more like exercise machines. I might just be missing the daily access to a free gym that I had at school, but I always loved punching my personal information into that giant, robotic elliptical machine. That ritual action created a kind of ambivalent trust and it enabled a feeling that your accomplishment was somehow unique and perfectly designed for your specific body. Imagine if your tool knew exactly how strong you were, how big you were and could reorient your body’s center of gravity to give you optimum leverage. Tools, I suppose would become a main feature of contemporary art following in the steps of Mark Bradford and his sander, (I wonder if he feels one with his sander). So, in conclusion, anthropomorphic gel plus personalized technology equals a big bright new world of building for me and those like me. Until then, I’ll let my Indonesian flower hammer continue to mock me.