Michelle Nguyen’s artwork will enworld* you. Monstrous vegetation joins with naked, dripping, feminine bodies who live ferociously without ever doing too much. Figures pour from one orifice into another and commune with anthropomorphic meat. Colours push out towards the viewer. In the world of the painting, bodies, surfaces, paints, and textures party, seeming to want the viewer to become involved. Her work is luxurious, a little foreboding, and streaked with absurdity. Across her many mediums, drawing, print, clay, and largely in paint, Nguyen shows how the abject is cased in potential, still radiating beauty.
Nguyen and I have known each other since 2016, and in that time, I’ve grown a deep admiration for both her and her work. Much like her body of work, Michelle is bold, darkly funny, and deeply tender. She has a lovely friendship with my young daughter. The two of them mixing potions of dirt, fallen flowers, and dead bugs, left to cook in a hot sunbeam.
In our conversation, we spoke at length about the capacity for art to hold oppositions, a space for grief and mourning to hang together with joy and beauty. This is not a simple task in the wake of anti-Asian hate crimes, our grief on fire and yet we are still expected to strive. To become familiar with the artist and her work is to discover a subtle refusal buried in the excess she paints. Nguyen’s bodies are busy. As they languish, rejoice, or conceal themselves, they reject what is being asked of their nude form. At the level of race, the rebuff performed by her figures mirrors Nguyen’s own quiet resistance to the demands of a young POC artist in a pervasively white system.
I can’t not talk about race in a world where contexts seem so important right now. There are so many little bits of information that someone is always consuming. But how often do you take time to actually marinate in it?
I’m curious to ask about how whiteness figures for you as a creator? As a maker, as somebody who sells their art, as well as the question of self-representation as a non-white artist: that idea you would have to put your race in your bio.
I’ve tried to avoid talking about race through my art for a while, especially in the beginning. But it’s not avoidable, especially if I want to use my name, which I do.
I remember one art show I had at Bau-Xi Gallery. There was one painting I did where someone wrote in the signature book, “I can really see the oriental mysticism in this one.” Oh my god! There is nothing in the painting to indicate that for me, so this person just made this assumption based on my name. That really bothers me.
I can’t not talk about race in a world where contexts seem so important right now, so many little bits of information that someone is always consuming. But how often do you take time to actually marinate in it? The way that social media encourages you to speak out right away, to make a stance instead of taking the time to reflect and read some other articles on the issue before you tweet. But you want likes; we want clout, another form of capital.
There is an idea that we should be acting quickly. That even as regular humans, we have to come out with some kind of stance, on all the various issues. It’s complicated.
It is. And I think all the time about how some people can’t afford to sit around and figure out what the best option is. But I also think we need to accept the fact that all the problems we have now, especially ones around racial inequities, are something that won’t be fixed within our generation. It’s going to be a long time, and we have to dedicate our lives to it.
Do you feel like you’re making work to specifically address something?
The poet Mary Ruefle, who writes the book Madness, Rack, and Honey – a modern-day day (Rilke’s) Letters to a Young Poet – she writes, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing most of the time and the poets that tell you that they do know what’s going on – they’re lying!’
Well that’s the thing right? You might start and the page or canvas is empty, and eventually you fill it up somehow. I feel like that as a writer.
It’s beautiful that way! That’s why I like doing it.
I notice that non-white artists, particularly contemporary black artists, have made a turn towards figuration. I wonder if you see your work in this figurative sense, or do you see yourself as more of an abstract painter?
I feel like there's just too much going on in my work, too much definition, to call it abstract.
The most interesting thing about these paintings is that I usually just start with one main figure, one sort of idea I want to focus on and it slowly grows from there. So, with this pink one (gestures), I’ve been documenting the way I’ve been painting it and every time I leave my studio, I take a photo. So it starts out with one figure, and grows outward. After taking a photo I’ll look at it on its own and try to figure out what it comes next. I don’t know how to plan something that big, and when you plan something it just seems really boring to paint.
So you begin with this humanoid turkey…
I knew I wanted to paint some meat, a body, and then I’m just trying to figure out how to make it work.
When you start from these forms—some meat, a body—do you plan from the beginning to develop them as part of a series? In each of these works you repeat these themes. None of your figures have faces, they are pouring out fluid from orifices, things are crawling out of their faces.
You’ve talked about how the pandemic has changed the way I’ve worked and painted. I think the pandemic was definitely one of the reasons why I started omitting faces.
Why do you think that? Because there just stopped being faces in front of you?
Maybe I’m just kind of tired and disenchanted by humans?
The demands of social distancing and self-isolation often mean that the only face we really confront is our own.
I was so interested in the history of the mirror and how that’s changed how we perceive ourselves. There was one writer, Fernando Pessoa, who talks about how the mirror has cursed the human race, and how before you’d have to kneel down and look into a body of water and how humbling that would be to see yourself, and now we’re faced with ourselves constantly, in this reflective glass world.
I think in the psychoanalytic sense though, that reflection is not really you. The thing you see is never really the thing that you are. It’s an empty reflection.
That’s why I hate looking at myself in the mirror! But there’s also such a focus on the self as centre – to be on social media all the time to be able to connect with people. This idea of vanity always reminds me that I’m stuck in this body. It feels like a curse to me and I would never paint my own figure.
There was an instance at an art opening where an old white lady came up to me and she said, “I like the fact that all the bodies you paint, they’re not too fat, and it doesn’t disgust me, so good job!”
I was just shocked. That’s not what you expect to hear. You think that’s a compliment to me?! Her words replay in my mind all the time, and I want to make paintings that aren’t pleasant to her eye anymore because I’m petty that way.
So, is there a sense of trying to repel your audience?
I’m definitely taking in that response. I’m always interested to see what people think of my paintings, or what they see in them. I think it’s interesting to see what people’s eyes focus on, or what they’re drawn to.
In a sense, the facelessness you are working with is a bit of a rebuke – a refusal in a way. And also: here are some people doing some gross things: spewing fluid from their holes, smoking and drinking. That one in the pink, she has blood pouring from her nipples.
It’s profuse. It’s kind of luxurious. It’s pretty gross in a great way.
I’ve been painting more bugs too. I used to play with a lot of worms. I’d fill a tin with worms and leave them there, and after a week I would see things sprouting from this tin, and I’d dump it out and fill it back up with worms!
How do you think about scale in terms of your process? I think a lot about scale in terms of how it affects me as a viewer. And for you, I always think of you as kind of involving me as a part of the world
Yes, it’s big enough that you could step in.
We are trained as art historians to look for the interruption. But your whole painting is an interruption. There’s a lot going in every single corner of the painting. There is too much going on to track at times because your level of detail is really high.
I want to hold people at a painting for a while. There is pleasure in standing with a piece for a while and finding something you didn’t see initially. I think having a canvas full of many bodies offers a kind of deconstruction of the history of painting. A refusal of how painting has often been used as a celebration of one singular person and their wealth and power.
Do you think that it also de-centers the singular body? For instance, the famous Manet painting Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (1863), where it’s just the single nude among clothed men. So obviously that painting is about her, the two clothed men are there, but all eyes are on her. So, if you paint many nudes and they coexist on the canvas, is there an intention to de-center that tradition?
I’m not sure, it varies from painting to painting.
I think I said to you that your work reminds me of some 16th-century religious artwork, in the sense that it seems you are dealing with some metaphysical forces, there is a lot of darkness, death is a factor.
Always! I’ve always been obsessed with death. Watching my grandparents go through cancer, all that pain that they went through, watching my parents grieve.
Watching them deal with losing their parents. I love reading about the funeral industrial complex. I love reading about embalming and death rituals around the world and also geriatrics and the science behind that. How to achieve a good death is interesting to me. Watching my grandparents wither away in a hospital bed, caused one of my cousins to become a nurse, so I guess my painting practice is my own way of coping.
My mum’s always saying, “I just want you to be happy, just be happy all the time!” and that’s not realistic. It’s not a real thing. A human being is always in flux, we feel so many different things, and I’m not going to be happy all the time.
So, would you say your work is about grief?
Yes, for sure. That poet I mentioned, Mary Ruefle, wrote an amazing poem called Pause, where she talks about menopause. At the beginning, there is a page of her cry log. When she began menopause, she started to keep a cry log and would log each time she would cry during the day. I started doing it, recording every time I cried this year and why. Starting with the question ‘why do I feel this way?’ I don’t always know, but I don’t want to throw that emotion away. It’s important to hold it and analyze it
I have this idea that viewing an artwork is a kind of magical continuum—maybe in the practice of looking, through research or reflection, we can enter into a kind of combination with an artwork— a kind of ‘magical effect’ where we combine with what we see and move that new potential somewhere else. I usually look at artwork that is responding to a real-life thing or politics to see what these works loosen in us through the viewing experience. Are these factors that inform your work?
I think it stems from a real thing, but then it turns into something else. Like, this one (gestures at painting) … this is actually inspired by some sort of relic, a container for Mary Magdalene’s skull found in Italy, and it’s shaped like this human thing and there’s a glass dome with a skull in it, from the late 18th century but very futuristic looking. The dome makes it look like she has a helmet on. I am using that imagery and finding a way to incorporate it into my identity. It is one of the first times I have actively tried to talk about my identity and culture through painting.
It looks like a departure for you.
It was. To focus on relics instead of the human body. Combining the Mary Magdalene skull – I added on these cranes over time, but it started with the skull and bloomed out of that.
Would you say it is talismanic? Protective?
Yes. I titled it A prayer for safe passage. There’s a little incense holder down there, a little boat. I’m trying to reflect my family’s history through the work.
Do you have a sense that you don’t have access to your family’s history?
I’m working on it right now. Both my sister and I want to learn more Vietnamese.
Do you speak Vietnamese?
I grew up speaking it and moving to Vancouver pulled me away from it. I’m not around it so I don’t speak it as much. But I have recently moved into a new apartment and it’s close to Little Saigon. My mother roped me into learning Vietnamese from her, so me and my sister Zoom twice a week with my mum and she teaches us. It’s a little structured sometimes – my father decided he wanted to join in and he taught us a class – but the structure of the classroom that all four of us understand makes it work really well. It’s like family therapy now, a combination of that and a language class. And I think we all really want to be there and enjoy it.
My mother was so excited that she bought a chalkboard. Growing up in Vietnam, she wanted to be a teacher, and was one of the best students in her class, in every class. But to have the war roll in, have it disturb the life she was trying to create for herself, then to move here and not be able to find the time, the money, or the opportunity to make her dream happen – our little class gives the opportunity for her to teach her daughters how to communicate with her and their father better, and there’s something very beautiful there that makes me emotional to think about. After my sister [filmmaker Carol Nguyen] made her film, No Crying at the Dinner Table (2019), people would say, ‘isn’t that nice, you learned how to say you love each other more’, but that’s not the end.
That work is never done. It’s clear to me, as someone who knows you, that the diaspora you feel is real, and the grief you feel is real. When I think about the type of grief that you’re expressing, it feels more in the sense of melancholia, a type of grief that’s not necessarily yours so it’s not ever going to completely lift. You carry it constantly.
I’m never going to be done carrying that around. The five stages of mourning – that’s not a real thing – it’s always a combination of those things and it’s always happening constantly. If you’re lucky then maybe the passage of time kind of dulls it, but it’s still going to be there.
Sometimes, when I run with these heavy thoughts, I start crying. But when I’m in this particular headspace, I can also hold all of these contradicting ideas in my head all at once: I’m strong, I’m fast, and I’m a mess.
Can you pinpoint the way the diaspora figures into your work? The way that melancholy figures? Or is it something that is hard to notice on a daily level?
I’m lucky to have a sister whose artwork centres her diaspora. I’ve always pushed away from it, and I’m still trying to figure that piece out. I’ve been living as an Asian woman who doesn’t want to be seen as Asian, and this is a reaction to the way white people have seen me.
Before Vietnam was colonized by the French, they were under the rule of China for a long time, and the colonial influence of Japan. There is so much conflict in Asia but when you get over here in a white North America society, all of that dissipates because you are seen as one thing. That conflict you come in with becomes minimized by the society you occupy. How strange that is. Cathy Park Hong explains it really well in her book Minor Feelings. With the increasing physical assault on Asian people, it is clear that there is a real lack of care whether you are Chinese or something else. In America it is jaw dropping because race is only, literally, black and white.
I’m registering that, for you, whiteness is the aggressive force that you have been pushing against since at least you began to train as an artist.
It’s there constantly. That’s what the reality is.
And when you want to be successful in something, do you bend into that? Do you try to make your own path? One artist, his name is Ibrahim Abusitta, he works in Toronto and does smaller scale paintings. He published something in Canadian Art around the time of George Floyd’s murder where he looked at all the different people of colour in all the Toronto galleries and marked the percentage of their representation. It was wild to see my gallery there, to see that people of colour are ‘five artists out of seventy’ and realizing that I’m one of those five! I don’t know what to do with this information. I don’t feel like I have any pull at that gallery. If anything, I don’t sell as well as some other people, so I don’t know what to do with that power of being represented by the gallery.
Am I betraying my people? I don’t know. Am I being successful? Am I being tokenized?
Most of the women carried by my gallery are white too, and when I have spent time with some of the artists there, I don’t feel like I fit in. The gallery has been there since like the 60s or the 70s and all the artists are older white people. I find myself in a different place in my career and life and I don’t know how to relate to these people.
In my own work I think a lot about the powers of the viewers, but I wonder how that works if you’re the creator. How do you spin that? Or do you think about it very much?
I guess I want to be informed by my viewer. The whole point of being an artist is being a communicator, right? There’s always the beginning of every artist’s career where you think ‘I don’t want to explain anything I’ve made.’ But it’s so important to have context, and if people are interested to know more, isn’t it my duty to inform them or try to talk to them about it? Isn’t that what art is supposed to be about, a conversation? I never want it to be a one-way conversation.
What do you do if that experience isn’t always pleasing? Here you’re working with ideas of facelessness, bodies that are abject in some way, on the other hand, it’s all pretty beautiful. How do you hold these opposites?
Isn’t the whole point to try and find a way to hold them all? When I’m running, for instance, I start to run on a bit of a high and my mind floats naturally to the things I typically try not to think about, like my parents dying. As someone who is anxious all the time, it becomes comforting to know that death is the one thing I know will definitely happen. I know my parents are still here, and they’re healthy, but I mourn for something that I know is inevitable. I was raised being told constantly not to cry, that it made me look weak. Sometimes, when I run with these heavy thoughts, I start crying. But when I’m in this particular headspace, I can also hold all of these contradicting ideas in my head all at once: I’m strong, I’m fast, and I’m a mess.