Floating effortlessly beneath a ceiling of skylights, Vietnamese-American textile artist Kenny Nguyen’s solo show Home/land captures the eye of any passersby strolling past Sugarlift Gallery. Activating the light-filled space with its breathtaking gradient of colors and intricate woven texture, the stand-alone piece has a powerful impact. Upon first glance, the artwork boasts a seamless transition of colors, from vibrant aqua and seafoam green, to ochre and sienna, and finally a rich and earthy rust red. At a distance, one sees an elegantly draped and colorful textile artwork along a vast wall, but upon approaching the piece more closely, one can see a depth of color, dimension, and movement. Every weave, stitch, and mixed color has a significance to the artist’s identity and past that I only recently began to fully comprehend.
Upon the opening of this exhibition, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Nguyen to get an exclusive look into his creative process for his biggest installation to date. But what I thought would be a conversation on the creation and assembly of this colossal piece, standing 12 feet high and 30 feet wide, soon turned into a discussion of identity, transformation, and artistic release. Along with it, came an entirely new perception of not only Home/land but of Nguyen’s entire breadth of work.
Nguyen’s sculptural installations are as impactful in meaning as they are in innovation and scale. After moving from Vietnam to the United States in 2010, Nguyen pursued a career in fashion where he found meaning in working with silk. He found that cutting and manipulating the luxurious material, highly associated with wealth and Southeast Asian culture, to him was a symbol of regeneration, metamorphosis, and exploration of his identity as a Vietnamese-American Artist. Each piece addresses the evolution of Nguyen’s identity over time, deconstructing tradition, and finding the beauty in change.
The formation of Nguyen’s pieces is influenced by his experience in creating garments. After ripping strips of silk, the artist then dips each piece of fabric in acrylic paint and adheres them to raw canvas by layering and molding the materials together.
When installing his pieces, Nguyen folds and drapes the canvas, securing temporarily with a push pin and updating and reforming the installation as he sees fit. The forms are not permanent, and no two installations ever look the same. For Nguyen, the evolution of silk from its original state to sculptural art is reflective of his own personal evolution over time. “I see silk as my second skin, and borrow it to reconstruct my own self and recapture memories,” he says. This insight allowed Nguyen and me to not only dive deeper into his identity as a Vietnamese-American Artist but explore how and when his journey in silks and woven memories started.
“The transformation of silk from a delicate to sculptural material is reminiscent of my identity transformation. I see silk as my second skin, and borrow it to reconstruct my own self and recapture memories.”
In 2010, at only 19 years of age, Nguyen and his family moved from their farm in Vietnam to the states, knowing little to no English. Much of his first year was spent quite isolated in their small shared apartment, and as teens of his age went to school or work and socialized, Nguyen, unable to communicate in the native English tongue, felt lonely and trapped. Challenged by the inability to express this culture shock and detachment from this new society, Nguyen thought, “I can’t talk, and people can’t hear me. What else can I do to tell my story?” Secluded in his room, he grabbed his art supplies and started to paint.
Nguyen has never let go of the emotional release he felt at that moment. His expansive body of work speaks not only to his search for home and identity and ultimately metamorphosis within a new culture but to the memories he has of his birthplace, to which he has never since returned. The ripped silk is representative of the two cultures crossing, while the colors within are a peek into the vast and colorful landscapes and seasons Nguyen remembers from his home in Vietnam.
“I can’t talk, and people can’t hear me. What else can I do to tell my story?”
The Vietnamese language describes color in a way that is somewhat dissimilar to the English language, in the sense that it is more descriptive and specific. In English, when someone uses “green” to describe an object, each person’s perception of that green tends to be different. While I might think of a dark forest green, another might think of a bright seafoam. In Vietnamese, rather than one vague word, such as “green” encompassing an entire range of colors, objects within nature are used to pinpoint what is meant to be perceived. For example, “blue” is not used to represent pthalo, ultramarine, etc., but rather “the color of the sky” or “the color of the ocean” defines the color that one might see.
When Nguyen moved, he had to restructure his understanding of color, but for Home/land, he returned to his original conception of it, where each color included in the painting represents a memory of the nature he was surrounded by throughout his childhood. Across the piece, the viewer does not just see yellow, orange, or blue, but they instead see “the color of young leaves” and “the color rice fields.” Nguyen shared that he has never been able to see such colors again since his family moved and that this piece was a way for him to not only bring the rich and vibrant hues he remembers from Vietnam to a wider audience, but to express his longing to see these colors again.
To tie it all together, I inquired about the memories each color represents to Nguyen in this astounding painting. He shared that the overall piece to him almost looks like the seasons changing over the rice field where he was born. Just as he has moved, changed, and evolved, over time, so did the landscape he fondly remembers from the farm. The piece is a physical representation of birth, death, and transformation of the natural world around us, and of the evolution we see within ourselves.
Nguyen is looking forward to his upcoming group show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Jacksonville, Florida alongside esteemed artists such as Robert Rauschenberg. He is also hoping to continue to connect with communities through his art and share his journey as a Vietnamese-American Artist. Finally, Nguyen is planning to travel to Vietnam this year for the first time since he moved in 2010.
Kenny Nguyen: Home/land is on display at Sugarlift Gallery at 508 W 28th Street from February 16th, 2023 until March 25th, 2023. For more information about this exhibition, please visit sugarlift.com, or reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.