Tales of Yellow Skin: The Art of Long Nguyen
Nguyen’s paintings and sculptures communicate the trauma of a wartime refugee’s life in a graceful language of symbolic forms that ultimately transcend the limitations of their specific origins to become universal stories of human suffering and potential for renewal.
JoAnne Northrup, Senior Curator
The first mid-career survey of works by Los Angeles-based artist Long Nguyen will open at the San Jose Museum of Art on Saturday, April 12, 2003. Running through July 27, Tales of Yellow Skin: The Art of Long Nguyen, includes 15 paintings from his monochromatic “Tales of Yellow Skin” series and a major new sculpture, as well as 6 contextual paintings and works on paper. Nguyen, who has worked on his monumental series of paintings for nearly 12 years, arrived in the United States from Vietnam in 1975. On one level or another, the artist’s childhood memories of the war in his country are central to an understanding his work – his paintings tell a story of destruction, reconciliation with the past, cleansing, and rebirth.
For this exhibition, Nguyen has created a major new piece titled Boat, (20022003), which is 30-feet long, 3-feet wide and made of plaster and steel. Sectioned into five parts, which represent the five senses and five emotions identified in Chinese medicine, the sculpture overflows with a multiplicity of forms that reference human body parts, evoking the pain and suffering of transition from the known to the unknown, from life to afterlife. Monumental in scale, the sculpture will be placed in the center of the Skylight Gallery where it will be surrounded by the Tales of Yellow Skin paintings.
Born in Nha Trang, Vietnam in 1958, Nguyen and his family fled their war-torn country in the mid-1970s. After attending Christian Brothers College in Memphis, TN, where he earned a BS in civil engineering, Nguyen moved to California, where he received his MFA in painting from San Jose State University in 1985. Nguyen’s early work was inspired by prominent Bay Area Figurative artists, such as Nathan Oliveira, Elmer Bischoff, and David Park, and, while their influence is evident in Nguyen’s work, according to SJMA Senior Curator JoAnne Northrup, “the most profound attribute he shares with these artists is their belief in the expressive power of paint.”
In 1991, Nguyen turned his aesthetic focus to Vietnam and began his “Tales of Yellow Skin” series. The title of the series refers to a popular Vietnamese anti-war song, “Vietnamese Girl with Yellow Skin,” which tells the story of a young village girl killed by a stray bullet. The song describes the blood flowing over her yellow skin and expresses remorse that the innocent girl died before knowing true love. Inspired by the song, Nguyen elected to paint the series in myriad shades of yellow and began working on textured canvases with somewhat scattered compositions and rudimentary landscape characteristics.
Nguyen’s vocabulary of recurring forms – water and boats, human figures, truncated heads, plant-like forms, fire, internal organs – has remained fairly consistent since he began the series. He frequently depicts the five organs of Chinese medicine: heart, lungs, liver, kidney, and spleen, which evoke the artist’s interest traditional Chinese medicine symbols. Each organ embodies a positive emotion as well as its inverse, and there is a direct correlation between the tangible and the intangible. The ideal is harmony and balance between all the organs, as well as a preservation of the vital life force. Nguyen’s interest in Taoist philosophy is reflected in another prevalent form in his work – the seedpod – a symbol of metamorphosis, transformation, and rebirth.
Tales of Yellow Skin: The Art of Long Nguyen is accompanied by a 56-page, full-color catalogue, with an essay by SJMA Senior Curator JoAnne Northrup and contributions by Elaine H. Kim, Professor of Comparative Ethnic Studies and Associate Dean of the Graduate Division, University of California, Berkeley; Laura Elisa Pérez, Associate Professor in the Department of Comparative Ethnic Studies, University of California, Berkeley; and Peter Frank, art critic for the L.A.Weekly in Los Angeles.