THE ART PAGE
COLUMN SEVENTY-TWO, JUNE 1, 2002
(Copyright © 2002 Al Aronowitz)
TRANG NGUYEN-PAINTING FROM THE HEART
(Alec Clayton is an art critic, a novelist and a painter from Olympia, Washington).
How does one
describe honesty in a painting? Lack of pretension? No tricks or gimmicks? A
straightforward presentation of things seen or felt--–an image unadorned and
unpolished? Yes, all of this. But how does one recognize it and articulate it?
Perhaps it can't be done.
In the works
of so-called primitives or "outsider" or unschooled artists honesty
may be implied in the choice of subject matter. A painter may paint her favorite
toy from childhood, the store where she buys her daily bread, the fishing hole
where she hauled in a ten-pound catfish---subjects that may be meaningless to
others but through sheer lack of artifice convey to viewers the importance this
subject holds for the artist. Or she may convey honesty through choice of media
or method of execution (in the case of outsider artists this would mean cheap
materials and crudity of paint application).
In the work
of a trained artist, however, there are no such readily available and easily
discerned clues to honest intent. Yet, if the work is truly honest, we know it.
Such is the case of Trang Nguyen. Nguyen was born in Saigon, Vietnam. She
immigrated to the US during the 1980s as a boat person, and began her artistic
career shortly after graduating from California State University, Long Beach in
2001, where she studied with painter Domenic Cretara.
her paintings when another artist whose works I greatly admire, Darlene
Nguyen-Ely, directed me to her website (http://trangnguyen1.tripod.com/page1.html).
I have seen her paintings only on a computer screen, but that was enough to
convince me that Trang Nguyen is the real thing, an artist who paints from the
heart, with directness and simplicity.
are small landscapes in oil on wood. She may very well adjust and rework her
paintings; she may struggle with nuances of color and composition; but the end
result looks like it has been painted in a few simple strokes of paint to
surface with no reworking whatsoever. Road to Pendleton (Pendleton,
Oregon) is a Hopperesque landscape. A stark barnlike structure rests on a
precipice against the horizon, where a bridge meets a bluff. A blacktop highway
angles in from the bottom. The whole picture is a series of horizontal, vertical
and diagonal planes in dark browns and blacks against an empty blue sky. It is
loneliness personified, with no hint of life.
The road and
shadows in Road to Pendleton are an impenetrable black. The same dense
black shows up in most of Nguyen's paintings, most effectively in Rainy Night
in Monroe (Monroe, Washington), Red Barn, and Somewhere in Arizona.
Rainy Night in Monroe is a night scene with street lamps and car lights
reflecting on a wet blacktop. The shimmer of water on the road and the veil of
rain seen under the streetlights is as real as anything I've ever seen without
being a photo-realist depiction. That's quite a trick: to be painterly, with
drawing that verges on clumsiness, and yet come across as absolutely realistic.
Red Barn is another Hopperesque
composition wherein building and landscape come together to create a simple
structure in dark and light. An edge of a curved-roof barn cuts the picture
plane in half, and a tangle of electrical wires ties together the two almost
symmetrical halves of the picture. The horizontal droop of the wires mirrors the
vertical sweep of the roof. It is a compositional device that gives away the
hidden training beneath these seemingly simple pictures.
Trang Nguyen's career is in its infancy, and I hesitate to say more without seeing a lot more of her paintings, but I suspect she may be an artist to watch in the near future. ##
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