At the end of our conversation, Julien Nguyen read a poem by the 8th century Chinese poet Tu Fu which provided the title of one of his new paintings: “In ten years of war and more, how / could I avoid all honor? ? Everyone // cherishes heroes, but what a shame / to talk to me like everyone else. // War is brewing in our hearts / and raging at the borders: all these // lords chasing ambition everywhere, / who can resolutely escape deprivation? It might seem grandiose to tie into history in this way – and it is – but that’s exactly what makes Nguyen’s art contemporary. He achieves what few artists do: accept that nothing is new and nothing lasts, that we inhabit a world beautifully constructed from the rubble of other worlds, and that this is where we take a stand – as he says in the title of another painting exhibited at New York’s Matthew Marks Gallery until August 31, a remarkable, subtly science-fiction self-portrait of the artist at the age of thirty, hic manebimus optime: “Here we will stay most excellently.”
I AM ATTRACTED TO SOME ARTISTS and certain ways of doing things, certain techniques of representation, which tend to come from the beginning of the Renaissance. But it is a question of method, not of style. During this period, painting becomes a form of philosophical play. The way these artists started to think about and collect art is actually very similar to how contemporary art found itself in the 20th century. Renaissance painters were not simply trying to replicate what was in front of them or arrange pleasing shapes in a field, but sought to bring something to life through an analogous process of physical construction, construction, or growth. in their pictures. Take the landscapes in the background of many Renaissance paintings, where painters took elements from their own region and projected them onto Palestine or Egypt or wherever history unfolds. They are built like scenes, like dioramas, or like cards in a video game. The conjuring aspect is really powerful. I will say this in the language of the time: they give life to their own genius.
The most composed paintings in the exhibition generally represent religious subjects: a Virgin Mary, the temptation of Christ, Saint John the Baptist. These are the fundamental subjects through which, in whatever form, the United States of America has a relationship with the states of modern Europe. But there is also Solved in Deprivation, 2021, which takes its name from a line from a poem Tu Fu itself taken from Confucius. It is a religious or mythological painting, but it works with the Eastern philosophy rather than the Western model. The allegory and the metaphor have become so blurred over time that these stories, like hangers, allow me to do the draping work a little more freely. It’s my way of trying to strike up some form of conversation with the things that I deeply admire from the past, things that I find so much pleasure, joy, and love in, and seeing how those things could continue to exist.
i had a hard time with Woman in lab coat, 2021. Originally, I had in mind a sacred conversation based on the book by Piero della Francesca Flogging, California. 1470, which has a wonderful atmosphere and architecture in perspective. It is a very ambiguous painting because Christ is flogged against a column in the back corner of the picture, and in the foreground there are wealthy Roman merchants or statesmen having a pleasant conversation. I wanted to make my own version of this painting, but instead of a Roman courtyard in Jerusalem, I wanted it to take place in one of those austere white rooms where they build satellites or missiles. Instead of whipping Christ in the background, they’d be working on a device there. And in the foreground you would have these three handsome scientists having fun around the water fountain. I put my partner, Lili, in a lab coat. And that’s about as far as this painting got. I realized there was no way this photo would be made for this show, but it’s also a photo that I would love to do very, very thoroughly. And that therefore justifies that this stillborn version of it is released to the world.
The Ottolinger clothing collection that uses my paints was a happy accident. They asked me if I would be interested in doing something with them, and I basically gave them pictures of my paintings and I was like, “Wait, do what you want, let’s see what happens. “I have always been very satisfied with the representation of the fabric, the beauty of certain materials, the way things are cut and made. But making clothes is a completely different operation than figuring out what shorts this boy is going to wear in a painting. The fact that some pop culture figures started wearing these clothes sparked both excitement and a chuckle. The paintings become much more symbolic, like the way Athena has the head of a Gorgon on her shield. There is a video of SZA singing a song with a naked, red-haired, very foreign-looking Christ being baptized on the back of his cloak.
I treated the small works in this exhibition like small laboratories. In these, I would go deeper into my frosting technique or how I incorporate texture into the representation of flesh. There are even times when I allow myself an aggressive form of fantasy, like in Elongated figurine, 2020, where a nipple becomes a swirl, or the part of the self-portrait hic manebimus optime, 2021, which almost looks like a cleft palate or the tip of a hawk’s beak. I’ve always had this weird idea of the tip as something both delicate and strong – like, I pushed the shape to a point, and it’s done. It’s closed; it is contained. It has rigorous speed and can move and cut things.
I turn to a long line of artists who paint self-portraits. But there aren’t many contemporary artists who do self-portraits in the classic way, that sort of cataloging of oneself, of one’s ambitions or claims, or some kind of advertisement. The last time I painted a real self-portrait in which I tried to accurately describe my features, I was fifteen. And then I did a silver point drawing for Matthew Marks about two or three years ago, and I loved it. It was called Self-portrait at 28, 2019. With this news I am leaving the first stage of adulthood, starting to put youth behind me.
Painting glasses is always a delicate operation. I tend to see myself through my glasses, having had them as a child, and I love how they look and what they can convey. In the self-portrait, I wanted to convey the harshness and optics of glass, but I wanted to make it a little more exciting for myself, a little magical. I was looking at a lot of 18th century menswear with these beautiful metal, gold, brass, silver, very shiny, very flat buttons with that delicate edge. They look like indeterminate technology two hundred, three hundred, four hundred years in the future. I wanted the glasses to look like this. And I wanted to make them float. There is a single button on the shirt that looks like the lenses; I wanted it to look like a nice shirt, but I also wanted to make it mine.
The title, hic manebimus optime, comes from the time when the Gauls were on the verge of sacking Rome in 390 BCE. People were like, “OK, what are we going to do? Should we abandon the city? And the centurion comes up and says, “No, here we will stay as excellently as possible” and defiantly rallies everyone to stay. I heard this phrase while watching this YouTube channel called Templin Institute, which produces videos on a wide range of sci-fi and fantasy universes, and I was very moved. Science fiction reflects the Renaissance way of thinking about history, using the rubble of the present or the past. These are the things that led me to art. There’s a little bit of humor in this idea of “Here we will stay very well” in that context, but that’s also a lot how I see what I do. I am in the studio a lot, I stay here. He moves very slowly.