Current Obsession

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…)

Current Obsession: Vermillion

April 4, 2014 |

I came into painting through drawing. There was a time when my practice consisted entirely of Sumi ink drawings on paper. Vermillion (which, includes many variations between orangey red and blue-ish red) was one of the first colors that presented itself to me as a possibility. Whenever I’d go to the art store to buy ink, that little palm-sized orange-red bottle sitting there next to the fat green and black Sumi ink bottle would taunt me and tickle my eye until, finally, I bought it. Although at first I used it sparingly, my initial attraction to the color has come full circle and I now often replicate it in Acrylic in my current paintings.

This color has a quality so strong that its visceral response is unquestionable and timeless. I think I am drawn to it, not only because it is just so seductive, but also because of its wide references. It is an ancient color, originally made from a powdered mineral called cinnabar and it is represented in Ancient Roman art, as well as manuscripts from the Middle Ages, Renaissance painting, royal Mughal manuscript painting and the arts of East Asia, particularly Chinese lacquerware (hence the synonymous name of Chinese Red). In all of these instances, it truly pops and has an identity of its own, functioning the way orange traffic cones might function in the midst of a busy intersection, or the way yellow caution tape both draws you towards the incident while also demarcating your position, telling you where to be.


Some examples: in many royal Mughal miniature paintings, vermillion is used to highlight certain moments in the image. It guides the eye and frames or marks each figure and his or her action. Here, also, vermillion denotes a sense of regal authority, adding to the sense of opulence and decoration of the Mughal era. For example, in an unusually intimate painting from 1597 attributed to Manchar that depicts Sultan Murad and a Consort, the Consort’s skirt is made of vermillion and emphasizes her femininity and sexuality. The skirt takes the shape of a flower petal or a gently licking, vibrant orange tongue as it embraces the Sultan. Furthermore, the pillow that the two figures are lying on have two slightly duller vermillion ovals on either end, framing and mirroring the lustful faces of the two figures.  Another example is in Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin (1518). This painting is compositionally driven by the vermilion as it marks the key figures in each of its three levels, the central virgin’s vermillion fabrics serving as a pathway up towards the heavens.

Recently, I’ve found it echoed in Guerra Pigment’s Napthol Red. I was told that this manufactured pigment is actually based off of the original Ferrari-red color. I couldn’t imagine a better color for such a luxurious car built for those whose passion for cars is unparalleled.  Here it acts as a symbol of wealth and authority, mimicking its quality in Persian painting. Another cultural reference resides in South Asia, where vermillion is used as a symbol of fertility. It appears on the foreheads of South Asian women as a bindi, particularly in the marriage ritual of the groom applying it to his bride as a symbol of their marital bond. All of these examples reveal vermillion’s close relationship to the body, it draws attention to the physicality of the object or image being looked at and it even sometimes has the power to arouse.

In other words, this orange-y red color can be traced throughout time as well as throughout the world. It brings with it an air of authority, power, fertility and passion and it has proven itself to be an exceptional pictorial guide for any viewer who has the pleasure of encountering it. This color has opened up my practice and has served as both a grounding tool to fall back on, while also offering endless opportunities to surprise myself. It is a color with many names, or no names, and it has the flexibility to absorb varying degrees of value and hue, while retaining its physicality and powerfully verbal message. I love it.

Current Obsession: Charvin Fine Oil Colour

March 21, 2014 |

Okay, it’s actually a permanent obsession. And spring is here, so we have to talk about amazing, beautiful, ripe color.

charvin (opt 1)

When I’m not using every other viscous material available to me, I’m fantasizing about tubes of Charvin paint. Charvin is a French brand, and is not very well known as I have discovered in my travels through studios, blogs and art stores. I found out about Charvin while browsing Jerry’s Artarama in Connecticut and came across the beautiful radiant colors that they have to offer. Jerry’s website has some alluring tidbits about Charvin, including that they are based in Cannes in the French Riviera.  They began producing paint in 1830, and it was “once used by great masters like Cezanne, Bonnard, and Ambrogiani.” Fancy, huh?

Beyond having a wide array of fashionable (I said it) ready to use colors, the paint is actually made with linseed and poppy oil. The poppy oil doesn’t yellow and makes the paint creamy and luscious like the ultimate in fantasy frosting if it wasn’t so poisonous. The packaging is simple, with a band of color at the top, shiny silver tube, and of course, a fine and extra fine grade for the most discerning of paint lovers.