When did you first become interested in the arts?
In high school, I loved drawing classes. In college, I took one class of painting but got bored. Then I took a detour in life through manual labor, farming, engineering and business – you name it. Now I’m back, as clueless as I was 30 years ago.
As a self-taught artist, what was this process like? What resources were available to you and with what other mediums have you experimented?
Challenging. First, very quickly, I knew I did not want to paint just for the soothing of the heart, but for unleashing the passion of the mind, which put me squarely in the midst of contemporary art. Second, I must navigate the sea of contemporary art and sort out for myself the authentic and the frivolous, the endless hope and the dead end.
I went to museums, attended artists’ talks, devoured art magazines, visited artists’ web sites to get a feel of where art is. I made friends with artists, art critics, gallery owners, many of whom advised me on techniques, critiqued my ideas, and gave me shows. Besides acrylic, I am experimenting with mixed-media in my next series, and want to explore installations.
Who would you say are your inspirations in contemporary art in America? In contemporary art in Vietnam?
From American art, Pollock, DeKooning, Warhohl, Basquiat as bold experimentalists. In some aspects, conceptual art. Vietnam has barely entered the house of contemporary art, with some promising young artists. Other countries in Southeast Asia are more advanced in that respect.
How do you feel that art can be vital to religion and/or spirituality? What interests you most about spirituality as a subject matter?
If art can make a landscape or still life or a concept become alive, then it can definitely awaken spirituality. Whereas religion relies on dogma, rituals to regiment spirituality, art relies on the creative mind to unleash spirituality.
Many of your pieces use characters, allegories, and icons from Christianity as well as Eastern religions. Can you talk about some of these characters and what their juxtaposition represents to you? Why do you choose to make them faceless?
The intent of juxtaposing otherwise irreconcilable realities is to dissolve the world of appearances, fraught with illusions and schisms, and reveal the essence of spirituality, which may be faceless and unifying. Besides characters from religion, I use many from myths and legends of both East and West as long as they allow me, with a simple twist, to make commentaries about life, about the individual, at this very moment.
How do you feel the process of immigration had an affect on your artwork as a whole? your stylistic choice and/or your choice of subject matter?
In this world of mass communication, cultural borders should be vanishing. It is not, for the simple reason that the weak will not allow the strong to swallow them up in the process of globalization. At one point in time, contemporary art strived to become universal, erasing the barriers of ethnicity. Later on, it became clear that universality was dictated from New York, and the world rebelled against it. So the Mexican, the Chinese, the Indian, while appropriating Western techniques, returned to their ethnicities. I use ethnic vocabulary in my work, only because that is what I know best, as a person learning to speak a new language, but I hope my ideas have universal validity, and, as my style matures, my ethnicity should recede into the background. As an immigrant, I must fight the label of “American painter” or “Vietnamese painter”, and hope to be known only as a true artist.
Would you say your artwork is the result of a conscious blending of Vietnamese and American aesthetics, or is it a circumstantial byproduct of traveling and existing between the two countries?
It is a conscious blending of Vietnamese and American aesthetics, insofar as I set out to use whatever means – American pop art, street art, surrealism, Eastern and Western allegories, myths – to drive to a transcendent point: reality is not what it looks. Look deeper, search, experiment, travel – in the mind that is. Exist, not between two countries, but between multiple states of mind.
What do you see in your role as an artist in America versus your role as an artist in Vietnam? How is the Artist perceived in each country? What opportunities are present in one but not the other? What are the differences and the similarities as you've experienced them?
I believe the two roles are the same: as an artist, I hope to contribute to American and Vietnamese art something new, that has not been done before, that has roots in both, and that answers some deep human quest, much like jazz improvisation, born of the collision of two cultures. Comparing the two art milieus, I can only say that American artists have the means and the will to experiment, and they benefit from an infrastructure (curators, galleries, auction houses, grants) unequalled in the world. Vietnamese artists remain the art guerillas, fighting for survival, against much larger odds.