Catalog Essay by Laura A. Lindenberger:
TELLING STORIES TO STRANGERS
Poets work through words that can't quite be pinned down but lend themselves to metaphor and inference. Substituting paint for text, Thuy-Van Vu's creative practice is much the same in its thickly resonant allusions. Vu likes the rhythm of language, repetitive sounds, finding physical parallels to make things look the way poetry implies and urges feeling. Vu's work is both deeply personal and autobiographical, but subtly so. In her work, we find almost-told stories that are careful suggestions -- we feel the presence of narrative, but only because of Vu's visual strategy: a hint of textured associations, layering the familiar with something unrecognizable, myth with unknown stories, color with abstracted objects.
Part of Vu's ongoing narrative includes everyday things. Household items like chairs or mattress springs stand in for memories of home and family in her large scale drawings and paintings, including Bed, 3 of 14 and Home is (W)here. In these pieces we find an intentional sparseness, perhaps because the objects she depicts seem to be situated in a white void, absent of any definable background imagery. They are what they are; direct, meticulous, simple. They are part of her own collection of memories; outside our frame of reference, they allude to Vu's personal collection of stories and familial encounters.
Vu bases her most recent paintings on installations that she creates, photographs, and then paints from the photographs. Far from being photorealistic, her work abstracts the photograph (itself a mediated type of abstraction from 3-D to 2-D), leaving indirect allusions to the original subject matter. Her paintings are deeply satisfying on a formal level, weaving colors into an unfamiliar landscape/dreamscape.
The space in these paintings, though perhaps initially unrecognizable, is imbued with Vu's own sense of history, both personal and more expansive. Painting about history is complicated, and its complications are compounded by a late 20th century sense that history has become a large amorphous ball of moments yet to be set into an overarching narrative. For Vu, that overarching narrative begins at the level of our personal experiences of the world.
For a while, Vu painted her own history, looking to ancestral portraits and family for inspiration in exploring what it means to be a first generation Asian American, but also how to understand familial narratives. This practice of telling stories to strangers felt alienating, too directly personal. You need some kind of filter, some understanding of the audience to whom you tell your stories, she notes. Plus, it's too easy to hand the unfamiliar viewer your life on a platter, allowing all the contents to pour into one clearly defined personal story for their easy consumption. Personal narrative is much more complicatedly messy than that and requires true intimacy between the artist and viewer to be read successfully.
Part of Vu's process of understanding and representing intimacy through painted allusions lies in her explorations of other media. Her paintings are products of carefully crafted installations -- in the case of her work for Shade, she tied hundreds of tags along a string, reveling in their formal simplicity and in the beauty of their repetition. Then, adding pieces from a dragon mobile, the work's geometry began to unfold -- circles and rectangles bumping against each other and weighted by their shadows on the wall. Vu is interested in the physicality of installation, the private contemplative moments of tying tags that no one will see because after she photographs them, she unties all of them and puts them away. There's a hint of performance here, but it's a private performance enacted to flesh out intimate experience and personal spaces. Physicality and slowness are important in Vu's process of installation. There's something radical about working slowly and intuitively in our contemporary world. A certain humble certainty permeates Vu's repetitious labor over each step in her process, resulting in measured and clearly focused painting. Her process is part of the story. The choice of materials she uses in her private performances reinforce the personal narrative Vu builds. She thinks of physical interaction as a way of understanding something, of suggesting narrative in her paintings. Further, she looks at objects to explore their associative qualities, their capability of inferring something larger than themselves.
While Vu's work avoids lending itself to a literal reading,
through the poetic allusion she finds in paint, she suggests
the sacredness of everyday things, a sacredness she
connects to Vietnamese culture. Though she has repeatedly
abandoned painting to collaborate with artists in other media,
there's something about painting that draws her back.
Perhaps this attraction lies in the combination of physicality,
allusion, intentional slowness, and the labor of her process.
Throughout all her explorations of different media, though, Vu
continues to search for an intimate form of communication, a
way to tell her carefully guarded stories of home, family, and
sacred objects to strangers.