For Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we're highlighting the practice of Christian Nguyen. Born in Vietnam but raised in New York, Christian shares his thoughts on the distinction between Western versus Asian art, and the ways in which his abstract, geometric paintings engage with the larger canon of art history. Watch the full interview on Instagram, or continue reading below.
Please introduce yourself, including where you are from and currently based
I'm originally from Vietnam, but have lived in New York since I was a child and feel more Western than I do Asian. Just recently, I moved to Los Angeles and my studio is currently in East LA.
Describe the kind of work you create - how is it made, what inspires you?
I make acrylic paintings that are inspired by Renaissance artwork, frescoes, architecture, decorative patterns and so on, but the type of work I make really talks about space and using line, form and color — I try to create an experience that is open and very abstract.
How long have you been working in this style or with these materials? How did you first begin working in this way?
I have been painting abstractly for about 10 years. I began exploring abstraction because I did not want to illustrate an idea or an experience. Abstraction, for me, is not a representation, it is its own thing — a better term might be ‘non-representational’ art. What I’m trying to make seeks to be autonomous and defined by the experience that the viewer has with it. The potential of the blank canvas—the openness, the limitless possibility of the blank canvas—is something that I try to retain in a painting.
What is a typical day in your studio?
A typical day at the studio will seem rather mechanical. The process is continuous and is a series of chores, thoughts, meditations, fantasies and imaginings that somehow arrive at a work of art. Over the years, my work has become more minimal — I think it’s better to say that the elements have become more essential.
What I’m trying to make seeks to be autonomous and defined by the experience that the viewer has with it. The potential of the blank canvas—the openness, the limitless possibility of the blank canvas—is something that I try to retain in a painting.
What does 'heritage' mean to you?
Heritage is a loaded word. Making art to me is like making Western art. Asian culture does not really have a concept of art the way that the West has a concept of art — it’s very much rooted in decoration or craft. So my choice to be an artist is made in the context of being a Western artist. Western art is really based on collage in the contemporary sense, it incorporates a lot of different things and in a way, it is not pure.
How do you think about culture and identity in relation to your work?
I look at the history of artwork and I try to engage with that history and have a dialogue with that history, and so heritage really is a kind of chosen family. For me, I would rather stay within the formal realm and ideally, I would love to live in a time where culture and identity are not important to the making of artwork, because that only illustrates how the status quo does not accept people that are different or marginalized. For example, it never mattered to Picasso what his race was because he was embraced by the status quo and hegemony. It would be great to live in a world where we can all participate in that privilege, and not have to declare our culture and identity in relation to the legitimacy of being an artist.