Meet

Christian Nguyen

Where are you from and where do you reside?
I was originally born in Saigon, Vietnam. I currently reside in Brooklyn, NY.
Are you formally trained?
I was trained as a photographer – and more self-taught as a painter. But the foundation has always been Art History. I received my Bachelors from Cooper Union, were I began as a freshman painter and had the joy of painting crushed by the prevalent atmosphere of semiotics and post-modern critiquing. Everything had to have a concept and some social critique, so the artistic process was reduced to hours of talking about anything but art. My mentor at the time was Arthur Corwin, who introduced us to Paleolithic Art and its foundation in the origins of mythology. That class rescued me, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
Why did you choose to work with painting?
I began my studio practice as an installation artist – making environments and rooms that focused on a specific media. This developed into a series of architectural drawings which were made on a scale that made perspective an immersive experience. I began using paint as a medium because I wanted to explore what was on the surface of the wall, and a canvas is an extension of this wall.
What led you to this process and how did you know it was the right one to pursue?
Drawing has always been the foundation of my work and of my painting process. In architectural drawings, the proportion of a space and its form are connected – this is the same when making a composition to paint. The division of the canvas as a space is connected to the forms that will be present. The challenge is to invent a new image using the same approach, this forces you to see your work differently.
Where do you find your day-to-day inspiration?
In all modesty, my work is my inspiration. Each work opens a new door, asks a new question. If it’s not interesting, nothing comes about. But if there is potential, then something comes out of this mode of inquiry.
What are you most interested in representing through your works?
On an ephemeral level, I would like to express the feeling of the monumental in my work. Monumental happens on a sense of scale, immensity and vastness. Morandi has this in his paintings as much as Serra does in his sculptures – both artists being so vastly different, they exist on very specific and unique planes of existence. Stonehenge is monumental not just in its scale but its abstract silence – the aspect of time and continuity echoes loudly in this space. Julian Schnabel likes to paint in outdoor studios because of the opinion that his paintings need to be able to confront nature’s immensity but his work is not about nature.
Slant
I began using paint as a medium because I wanted to explore what was on the surface of the wall, and a canvas is an extension of this wall. — Christian Nguyen
Do you find that your location strongly influences the direction of your work?
The studio is very important for my work. Coming from an installation background, I respond to space. The studio allows me to direct my concentration inwards, I respond to the work directly in front of me.

On occasion, I have done residencies that have produced very different bodies of work of different size and medium. I have chosen to make work in my own studio to keep the work consistent and have become less interested in doing residencies.

What necessities do you require when painting?
Other than good brushes, paint and a tight canvas – I need good light. My studio lighting is as close to daylight (5K) as possible. Because color is an important component of the work, having a bright, neutral light source is very important.
How do the different elements of color come together in your works?
My initial choice of color comes from the colors used in frescoes and Renaissance paintings. In this sense, my colors are European in contrast, say, to Op Art, which is inspired by advertising and billboards, hence synthetic and American colors - Rosenquist is a good example of where this comes from.

In recent paintings, I have been studying Monet’s cathedral paintings – and have chosen the palette to communicate the feeling of light as seen at different times on a wall. This has become a theme in the painting, how light is described by color and how space is defined by light.

How do you choose your materials?
Materials dictate the mode of fabrication and sometimes concept. I chose acrylic paint for its speed, masking ability and flexibility. I paint on canvas because it’s easier to make larger paintings and I like the pressure of painting on canvas.
What is the most difficult part of the artistic process for you?
The artistic process for me is based on research and practice - exploring and developing an idea over time, finding layers of associative meaning and connections, finding a method to visualize the idea into a form, perfecting the making of that form. The artistic process is ultimately based on Time. Having time to make the work is the most precious commodity and the most difficult one to acquire for an artist.

Another difficulty of an artist’s process is to thoroughly develop an idea – I think of painting as a narrow, individual space that the artist lives in. The range of artistic ability is how this space can be widened and defined by a singular vision. There is infinite variety and evolution, but when you look at a work of art the identity of the artist is ever present.

Are there any aspects of your process that are left to chance?
The structural approach to a painting is my first engagement with a work – the division of the canvas, the drawing of the form – after this, I base all the choices of color placement and surface application to chance. The painting itself appears deconstructed, often hidden under layers of tape until the final sections are painted and all the tape is removed. This is when I see the painting for the first time. During the entire process, I follow a mental vision of what I would like to achieve. The surprise comes from seeing the work revealed and quite often it is much bigger and more complex than the idea.

Slant
I think of painting as a narrow, individual space that the artist lives in. The range of artistic ability is how this space can be widened and defined by a singular vision. There is infinite variety and evolution, but when you look at a work of art the identity of the artist is ever present. — Christian Nguyen
How important is spontaneity in your art?
Spontaneity is very important in experiencing a work of art. For me, this means being able to bring different responses and associations into a work that is not expected or preconceived. This is why I prefer to make abstract images, and to communicate with form and color so the intuitive, emotional and intellectual response for myself and the viewer is possible.
How has your work developed in the past few years, and how do you see it evolving in the future?
My work has developed primarily from my experience as an architectural photographer and from my interest in mythology. The theme of architecture and mythology (in its most broad sense) has continued to inform my work since the beginning. One decisive period was my exposure to Native American Art as the collections photographer for the American Museum of Natural History. This experience made me want to make unique objects.

Recently, I was working with mosaic patterns and tiles, inspired by recent visits to Italy and by viewing the Byzantine cathedrals and specifically the Basilica of Assisi. The mosaic paintings developed into the current body of work that is exploring architectural motifs such as arches and the layout of sacred spaces as a form in the painting. In the near future, I see more work inspired by architectural forms from Antiquity as well as developing a minimal style of painting. I would like to make murals and push the possible scale of the image.

When talking about the change in an artist’s work, I define change as a process of getting closer to an essential vision or concept. It is like peeling the layers of an onion to reveal its core. Change and transformation is an evolution towards an essential vision that through the journey embraces and adopts many ideas.

What themes or motifs are you consistently drawn to?
The concept of a total world view is something that intrigues me. Dictators, prophets, philosophers, and great filmmakers have this obsession. Perhaps it is also because I make so much of one thing that I have to discover every detail of the bigger picture. The theme of systems is always present in my work - systems are structures that express a thought process as it does rules. I like to set parameters for my work.

Lastly - the story of origin. I am fascinated by how things began. The process of origin is also self-reflective, because I am curious of the Why.

Do you remember the first work of art that captured your attention?
I can’t think of one – but as a student I was very moved by Max Beckmann and Kathe Kollwitz. It was raw and blunt.
Do you admire or draw inspiration from any of your peers who are also working now?
I have great admiration for my peers – Paul Corio, and Jim Osman to name two. They are my colleagues at the New School. There is a great number of people who do wonderful work, but for me they all share a devotion, an honesty and directness to their practice. I admire people who can work and are not afraid of their own place in the world.
Is there any artwork on display in your home or studio?
I have artworks by Senem Oezdogan, Paul Corio, Markus Linnenbrink, Eun Mo Chung, Catarina Leitao, Francis Cape, Lois Conner, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Christopher Daniels.
Are you influenced by any author or non-visual artist?
The authors whose works I have read most of are: J.R.R. Tolkien, Somerset Maugham, John Steinbeck, Joseph Conrad, Graham Green, Jorge Luis Borges, Joseph Campbell and Patrick O’Brien (The Aubrey/Maturin Novels). The writers who have influenced my work the most are Jorge Luis Borges, Joseph Campbell and Julian Jaynes (The Origins of Consciousness and The Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind).
What would you like to see in your lifetime?
I would love to visit the Paleolithic caves - Lascaux, Les Trois Frêres (France), and Altamira (Spain). For me, they contain the beginning history and clues of why we as a species make art. Like an ancient studio, walking into these caves would be walking into the mind of the painters that lived there and connect to a time in which art was made without really the definition of art.
Is there something people would be surprised to learn about you?
I find somehow the time to pursue my craft as a luthier - and try to make better classical guitars with every build. I love how the form of the guitar is always the same (neck, body, strings) but every guitar has a voice. I realized that the craft of making a better instrument is connected with becoming a better craftsman. Hence, this process of repeating a form creates more subtlety: fine tuning the craft makes the craftsman more finely tuned.

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