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Fri. Jul 19th, 2024

A tribute to South Seattle artist Tuan Nguyen

By meerna Jul11,2024
A tribute to South Seattle artist Tuan Nguyen

On June 15, the Rainier Arts Center hosted a celebration of South Seattle artist Tuan Nguyen. Photo courtesy of Leah Nguyen

(This article was originally published online by the South Seattle Emerald and is reprinted here with permission.)

On a recent breezy, sunny Saturday afternoon, dozens of people filed into the Rainier Arts Center to celebrate the life of the late South Seattle multimedia artist Tuan Nguyen. Known for his experimental, delightfully odd paintings-sculptures and comics, Nguyen died of cancer on March 12. He was 51. He is survived by his wife, fellow artist Leah Nguyen, and their child, Pasha.

His friends, family, colleagues, neighbors and loved ones gathered at the RAC to commemorate Nguyen’s impact on their lives, art and community. An altar to Nguyen greeted visitors to the space, which his family decorated with giant bushels of flowers.

During the ceremony, his family and friends took to the microphone to share memories of Nguyen—his dark sense of humor, his compassion, his patience, his creativity. The group sang “Across the Universe” by the Beatles (one of Nguyen’s favorite songs) and “Down Under” by Men at Work (a song he sang over and over again, much to the annoyance of his loved ones). After the ceremony, friends gathered for bánh mì and a game of fancy corpse, a family favorite.

In his work, which has been exhibited at venues including the Specialist Gallery and the Wing Luke Museum, Nguyen has taken the recognizable elements of painting and drawing—canvas, paper, graphite, wood, paint—and reassembled them to create something far more compelling and interesting.

Bizarre, wooden, sawdust alien hands covered in green grasshoppers. A cobra made of hot dogs and preserved in urine-colored jelly. A cube-shaped painting of a GI Joe floating in the cosmic nothingness of space and death. Aliens taking off their human suits, drinking beer and watching TV. At times grotesque and funny, Nguyen’s work contemplated the experience of being a refugee, parenthood, life, death, alienation, the strangeness of American culture, and the feeling of not quite belonging here or there.

“I like to use materials and objects that are close to me and can be transformed in some way—scraps of canvas from my painting practice, T-shirts I’ve worn, towels I’ve used,” Nguyen wrote in an artist statement for the Tacoma Art Museum’s “Soft Power.” “My work sometimes requires patience and openness. It’s not meant to be mysterious or ambiguous. Spend time with the work, because it often reveals itself at a slower pace than we’re used to these days. For best results, view without expectations.”

In his “washed drawings” series, he would tear up several pieces of paper, fasten them together with rubber bands, then throw them into the washing machine to get wet, washed, and stuck together. Then he would take the pieces and construct unsettling sculptures out of them—a baby, a cat, eyes. Or in his “spiderweb” series, Nguyen would dilute acrylic paint and arrange spiderweb patterns on raw canvas stretched over an octagonal panel, giving each piece a blown-up, bewitching effect. Looking at them was like staring into a vortex of ghostly, patterned apparitions.

“He did a lot of kung fu, and there’s something about kung fu where you use a soft focus—you’re not looking at one specific point, you’re looking at the whole thing, and that allows you to see everything. The webs help you focus, but they’re also a little blurry,” Leah Nguyen recalled in a recent interview. “He thought of them as kind of like a cosmic portal. He thought a lot about things opening up and you being pulled in, but they also catch you.”

“Washable Cat” made from machine-washed scraps of paper, acrylic, and beads. Art by Tuan Nguyen

“He also loved Spiderman as a kid,” she added.

Born in Saigon, Vietnam in 1972, Nguyen and his family fled the country during the fall of Saigon and ended up as refugees in Rockledge, Florida, in 1975. In a 2019 interview with Nguyen for The Stranger, he told me that as a child he watched NASA space shuttles launch from the shores of Cocoa Beach, an influence that perhaps seeps into his work in the form of aliens. The eighth of 10 children, Nguyen grew up tirelessly creative, with a love of comics and bicycles.

After earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Florida in Gainesville in 1994, he attended the University of Washington and graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in 1999. There, he met Leah, and they married in 2003. They moved around the country for a decade and a half to New York and St. Louis before returning to Seattle in 2016 and moving to Columbia City in 2017.

Throughout this time, Nguyen nurtured his love of art and painting, working a variety of jobs that suited his talents and curiosity—working on antique reproductions, airbrushing sculptures, painting custom wallpapers. In 2006, while in St. Louis, Nguyen moved into arts administration, serving as gallery director at COCA and eventually as director of education at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. Here in Seattle, he continued his teaching and consulting work with the (now defunct) Meta Open Arts program and the Lumiere Group.

“He influenced so many people as a teacher,” said close friend, curator and art consultant Lele Barnett. They met while they were UW students curating art at the Seattle Art Museum and have been friends ever since. “He had incredible patience, gentleness and kindness. I don’t know anyone else who had that level of patience with other people.”

Even while ill, Nguyen continued to create works of his signature dark humor and creativity, grappling with his own mortality. In his “Body of Pain” series, he created a painting-sculpture out of bony, rough driftwood, covered in dark gray acrylic paint and sawdust. Squeezed into various crevices of the work are coins that Nguyen noted he had found and collected during his cancer treatments, lending the piece a certain darkness. And of course, he titled the sculpture “Good Luck.”

Although Nguyen has passed away, his work is still visible in various locations around Seattle. He has a piece in “Soft Power,” a group exhibition of textiles exploring softness and resilience at the Tacoma Art Museum. “Tuan’s work is so deeply connected to his humanity and to himself—it’s something I can never get enough of,” said Ellen Ito, a friend and curator of “Soft Power.” “It was the way he used materiality that really spoke to me, because Tuan’s work is so relentlessly funky. It’s just so tactile.”

And at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, two of Nguyen’s sculptures greet busy travelers at the southern end of the ticketing level near the TSA PreCheck security checkpoint. Made with Leah’s help, “If I Die, Let Me Be Happy” and “Take Me Home” sit side by side in all of Tuan Nguyen’s strangeness and color—the former is one of his object paintings hanging against a purple backdrop, the latter a collection of miniature sculptures shielded by a giant alien hand.

However, the memory of Nguyen’s work is not limited to seeing his works live.

“Every time I reach into my pants pocket and there’s a piece of paper—God knows what it was before you threw it in the wash—now it’s forever going to be this fluffy, weird, wrinkled thing,” Ito said. “Every time I come across it, I think about it. Like, ‘Wow, Tuan could really do something with this.’”

To see more of Tuan Nguyen’s work, visit his website https://doglegnexus.com/home.html or Instagram, @thingsurcher

Jas Keimig is a Seattle-based writer and critic. They previously worked at The Stranger, covering visual art, film, music, and stickers. Their work has also appeared on Crosscut, South Seattle Emerald, iD, Netflix, and The Ticket. They also co-create Unstreamable for Scarecrow Video, a column and show series that showcases films that can’t be found on streaming services. They once won a game show.

By meerna

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