Tammy Nguyen (b. 1984, San Francisco, CA, lives and works in Easton, CT) creates paintings, drawings, artist books, prints, and zines that explore the intersections between geopolitics, ecology, and lesser-known histories. A story teller, Nguyen’s multidisciplinary practice takes two forms—her more traditional fine arts practice, which encompasses her lush, dense paintings, as well as her prints, drawings, and unique artist books, and her publishing practice, embodied through her imprint, Passenger Pigeon Press, which creates and distributes Martha’s Quarterly, a subscription of artist books and interdisciplinary collaborations. Across both domains Nguyen’s work aims to unsettle, and the tension between the artist’s elegant forms and harmonious aesthetics often belies the nature of her content. The confusion this dissonance creates becomes generative, opening space for reevaluation, radical thinking, and the dislodging of complacency.
Many of Nguyen’s paintings expand from her unique artist books, often through engagement with similar themes, questions, or investigations. Throughout her work she has explored a range of topics and ideas, including the Bandung conference, the first large-scale Afro-Asian conference which was attended by world leaders from 29 non-aligned countries during the Cold War, Forest City, a sprawling off-shore development project in Malaysia, and the red-shanked douc langur, an endangered species of monkey native to Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. A recent artist book series, Four Ways Through a Cave (2021), relates Nguyen’s travels through the Phong Nha-Ke Bang karst in Vietnam, significant for its numerous underground caverns and passageways and its history in the Vietnam War as a crucial area of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The book simultaneously invokes Plato’s allegory of the cave—the recognition of truth through the loss of illusion—and conveys the sense of physically moving through a cave, with circular-shaped cutouts that shift from page to page, tunneling through the book and transforming the reader into a momentary spelunker.
In 2008, Nguyen received a Fulbright fellowship to study lacquer painting in Vietnam. Her recent paintings reflect influences of this traditional technique in their remarkable flatness, colored grounds, use of gold and silver leaf, and her rich, intricately layered compositions. In Nguyen’s newest paintings she re-envisions the Stations of the Cross, filling the picture plane with references ranging from the biblical, to the historical, to the contemporary. Fighter jets fill the sky of one station, in which Jesus’ face has been transformed into a commedia mask, while in another the outline of a Pan American airliner can be identified. Commercial ships emblazoned with names like Enterprise, Constitution, and Truth sail across the 14 panels, implying the deep interconnection between commerce, colonialism, religion, and global politics.
At its core, Nguyen’s, collaborative, research-based practice is propositional, exploring ideas and conjectures for ways of looking at the past, examining the present, and imagining possible futures. Across her work, Nguyen addresses the question of how one reads, both visually and linguistically, and she considers the idea of multiple narratives being told simultaneously, held together by the edges of her compositions or spines of her books.
Nguyen was born and raised in San Francisco, and received a B.F.A. from Cooper Union in 2007, and an M.F.A. from Yale in 2013. Select recent solo exhibitions of Nguyen’s work have been organized by the Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn, NY (2022); Past/Present/Future: Expanding Indigenous American, Latinx, Hispanic American, Asian American, and Pacific Islander Perspectives in Thomas J. Watson Library, Thomas J. Watson Library, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY (2022); Nichido Contemporary Art, Tokyo, Japan (2022); François Ghebaly, Los Angeles, CA (2022); Tropical Futures Institute, SEA Focus, Singapore (2022); Smack Mellon, Brooklyn, NY (2021); Lightwell Gallery, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK (2019); Anderson Gallery, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA (2019); Mariboe Gallery, Peddie School, Hightstown, NJ (2018); The Joan Flasch Artists’ Book Collection, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL (2017); and Ground Floor Gallery, Brooklyn, NY (2017), among others. Nguyen has been included in numerous group exhibitions, including Still Present!, 12th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, Berlin, Germany (2022); Greater New York 2021, MoMA PS1, Long Island City, NY (2021); Nha, The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (2021); Face of the Future, The Rubin Museum, New York, NY (2018); Bronx Calling: The Third AIM Biennial, The Bronx Museum of the Arts, Bronx, NY (2015); and DRAW: Mapping Madness, Inside-Out Museum, Beijing, China (2014). Nguyen’s artist books are in many notable public collections, including Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, CT; The Center for Book Arts, New York, NY; Clark Art Institute Library, Williamstown, MA; Joan Flasch Artists' Book Collection, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; Mayer Library, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX; The Museum of Modern Art Library, New York, NY; New York Public Library, New York, NY; Philadelphia Museum of Art Library, Philadelphia, PA; Thomas J. Watson Library, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; Wesleyan University Library, Middletown, CT; and the Whitney Museum of American Art Library, New York, NY.
Artist portrait by Annie Ling