Michelle Nguyen | Before I Depart

Michelle Nguyen | Before I Depart
March 9-23, 2024
Upper Gallery
3045 Granville Street, Vancouver
Opening Reception: Saturday March 9, 2-4pm

Bau-Xi Vancouver proudly presents Before I Depart, the new solo exhibition by Toronto-born artist Michelle Nguyen. Known for her unflinching examination of death, transmutation, and the bridge between earthly existence and the afterlife, Nguyen delivers a new series of riveting and intricate compositions replete with detail, symbolism and allegory.

Nguyen has exhibited in Canada, New York City, and London, UK. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of British Columbia in 2016 and is now based in Montreal.


Artist statement:

“Our lives are full of griefs, full of losses big and small, and every loss is a spiritual death.”
— Breeshia Wade, Grieving While Black

Despite making heavily death-centric work, I have always been terrible at goodbyes. I have often opted for the exit of a ghost. I’ve been trying to become more intentional and sentimental, so when I made the move to Montreal, I tried very hard not to downplay the grief that comes with every departure.

I moved to Vancouver in September 2012 to study at the University of British Columbia, with the intentions of majoring in creative writing. I had never been to Vancouver before then and knew little about it. I was in need of a change and the campus photos looked nice. I never would have fathomed I would spend eleven years of my life here, or that my art would grow so drastically alongside me.

For the last six years, I spent the majority of my waking (and some sleeping) time in the same East Van studio. The packing and cleaning felt like a form of grieving as I reflected on my time in that space. The routines and habits I had formed would no longer be. The people I saw the most often would no longer be a bike ride away. I would have to re-familiarize myself with everything once again.

One of the perks of working in restaurants is that you get to try a lot of nice and varied wines. You learn to appreciate how a specific time and place can be captured within a bottle. Grapes are very impressionable things. In addition to varietal and age of the vines, there is climate, geography, and soil type that affects the quality of the fruit. Then you also have the human labour, wild yeasts, the aging process. You can taste salt from the coast, or the smoke from a wildfire. A liquid expression of a specific year and place.

I, like the grape, am a parched and noble sponge, absorbing everything around me. Though I never depict myself as subject, I view every single one of my paintings as an autobiographical work. My palate and subject matter often shift with the seasons, the fruits and colours an indication of what my surroundings were like during the making process, what I’m literally eating or craving at the time.

My current studio setup isn’t nearly as large as the last one. I am painting at home, tucked into a corner of my dining room. As a result, I have been making smaller paintings. I’m forced to be more intentional, but have been enjoying focusing on finer details. I can multi-task in a way I wasn’t able to before, with my kitchen just being a few steps away. I’ve been able to feed myself in a way I hadn’t been able to before. Where my easel is located, I can look outside onto my deck in case the neighbourhood cats decide to visit. I’m forced to take a break and play with them for a little while. I am forced to work differently, and I think it’s a good thing. I am trying to re-examine my relationship with my art practice. To do that also requires me to reconsider my life priorities. It’s important to be flexible in your thinking and process as a creative. I want to live a life worth making art about and put less pressure on myself to always be producing. Personal growth is just as important as artistic growth. Age can easily harden a person, but I want to continue to grow softer and more earnest.

This collection includes the last paintings I made in my Vancouver studio. 2023 was also the year I entered a new decade and turned thirty. I’m trying very hard not to resort to clichés, but I do feel as if it’s the end of an era for me. A series of little deaths. Death is irrevocably tied to notions of change. “The truth is that progress, or change in any form, requires some form of death or loss—death of our vision, loss of an imagined future, loss of power, and loss of self,” Breeshia Wade states in Grieving While Black.

These paintings depict many different changes (both big and small), and many different kinds of deaths (literal and metaphoric). There are many references to Greco-Roman mythology, and Vietnamese superstition and belief. There are women and beasts depicted in mid-transformation, allusions to climate change, insect extinction, food globalization, and ancient gods. Life is shown as dependent on death to exist. Death is necessary to create room for the person you are becoming.     -Michelle Nguyen, 2024


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