1) Poetry is a major influence for you, how did it inspire the title ‘Of Tristia, Forlorn!’ and in what ways do the two mediums intersect in your practice?
One of my favourite poems, Rodney Koeneke’s “Tristia” is my inspiration for the title. When asked about its influence, I give the example of the line, “one minute you burn, the next/you’re gelatinous as cold spaghetti.” Koeneke has the ability to seamlessly flit between these two vernaculars, one of extreme intensity and passion, and one of light jovial nonsense. This contrast is the perfect precedent for how I want people to receive my work.
Poetry is something that I learned to love before I started painting, and in those regards, I will say that my love for poetry is greater. Furthermore, I believe the two forms of expression to be quite similar in that they are both obscured forms communicative mark making.
Michelle Nguyen, Brides, Oil & Pastel on Canvas, 48 x 59 in.
2) How does your identity and personal history inform your work?
Both of my parents are Vietnamese refugees, and as a second generation Canadian, there is this unsettling feeling of inhabiting an ecotone, torn between the clashing of two sets of values and morals. There is this transgenerational transmission of trauma that I don’t quite understand, and this otherness that exists in both the cultures I occupy. I have accepted that I will never fully be able to articulate and understand the weight of these things. Sometimes, my paintings feel like strange Freudian dreams that capture those conflicts of identity.
3) The majority of your paintings are figurative, what sources are your figures drawn from and are there specific narratives, cultures or figures real or fictional, historical or contemporary that guide your work?
I have a great deal of reference photos stocked up on my phone that I am constantly referring to when I compose a painting. It’s like one big Pinterest board. I pull inspiration from a lot of different worlds of lore and theory. At this moment in time, I am really driven by spatial theory as well as Grecian mythology and the Victorian aesthetic. Honestly, it really depends on what I have been reading that week.
4) You’ve mentioned that you’re greatly influenced by artists like Cy Twombly, Cecily Brown, Egon Schiele and Andy Dixon, could you explain the specific ways in which your practice has shifted as a result of your exposure to their work?
They have all had a hand in defining the way I paint. I can recall each painting I made after learning about their work. Cecily Brown and Egon Schiele have kept figurative painting exciting for me (a subject I previously had venomously opposed). Andy Dixon has done the same but has also introduced me to the use of oil pastel. Cy Twombly, who is ultimately my favourite painter of all time, has shaped my practice the most. There is just so much confidence and vigour present in his mark marking. You can practically feel the vitality from his brushstrokes. His dynamism is something I am constantly trying to emulate.
Michelle Nguyen, Jelly Jamboree, Oil & Pastel on Canvas, 48.25 x 59 in.
5) Can you explain a little about your process? Do you paint with a sketch or with a composition in mind or is it more spontaneous? How do your canvases evolve into its final form?
I don’t usually do any sketches to prepare. I’ve taken this approach a few times, and it seems more limiting to me than productive. I have a handful of loose and disjointed ideas going in and I feel like I can only figure it out on the canvas itself. It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle or a collage. Additionally, I try to treat my canvas as a palimpsest. If something doesn’t work out mid-way I just paint over it with an understanding that no brushstroke is squandered and that they just add to the intricacies of the painting.
6) What does the body represent in your work and in what ways does the figure or the crowd interact with the viewer?
I am largely interested in aesthetic theory and was mostly painting abstracts up until I read Ways of Seeing by John Berger. I specifically was interested in his essay on the naked versus the nude, and the distribution of power amongst the audience and the subject. I thought it would be fun to attempt to invert this dynamic, so I began to experiment with these images of overwhelming mass crowds and alien bodies.
7) Humour plays a significant role in your work, why is it important to you to inject an element of the absurd and comedic into your paintings?
The elements of play and bricolage are very important to my process, and I want that lightheartedness to come through in my paintings.
Michelle Nguyen, Carnivory, Oil & Pastel on Canvas, 56.25 x 41 in., 2017
8) You work primarily in oil paint and oil pastel, which qualities in these mediums draws you to them?
I consider oil to be way more forgiving than most painting mediums. I love the texture of oil paints and its ability to capture the subtle gestures of ones brush. As for oil pastels, I think they just aid in emphasizing my existing illustrative style.