On August 24, 2023, the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston (ICA) opens Tammy Nguyen, the artist’s first solo museum presentation in the United States. Tammy Nguyen’s (b. 1984, San Francisco) gilded paintings are composite images that reconsider lesser-known histories against the backdrop of lush landscapes and varied symbols of violent conquest or soft power. For the ICA, the artist has created an interconnected body of 14 paintings, works on paper, and artist books.
Inspired by East Asian landscape painting, these works are all related to the relationship between people and nature, landscape and wilderness, as articulated in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s influential 1836 essay Nature, written in Concord, Massachusetts. Nguyen maps how ideas Emerson penned nearly 200 years ago have echoed across time and space to influence U.S. policies abroad, with a focus on Vietnam.
Organized by Jeffrey De Blois, ICA Associate Curator and Publications Manager, the exhibition is on view through January 28, 2024.
“Nguyen’s unique paintings are both portraits and landscapes, in which figure and ground are collapsed together, equating humans to nature as in Emerson’s essay,” De Blois said. “Her new body of work explores the lasting influence of Emerson, a figure associated closely with Massachusetts, on ideas about nature that are still prevalent today.”
Nguyen’s new works are tied together by the line “what is a farm but a mute gospel?” from Nature, which intimates Emerson’s idea that God is reflected everywhere in nature. Dense layers of foliage combine plants and trees of the U.S. Northeast with the flora and fauna of tropical environments to create jungle-like landscapes where everything is interwoven. Emerson is one of the figures who recurs throughout the new works, along with Jesus, Demeter, and Ngô Đình Diệm.
Nguyen presents these seemingly disparate figures in parallel, connecting them using different seasons as experienced in the Northeast to create a new narrative around these known symbols. Jesus appears in the figure of the Christ of Vũng Tàu, a 105-foot statue in Vietnam on the top of Mount Nhỏ—both a legacy of colonialism and a path to salvation. Here, the Christ of Vũng Tàusuggests literally the Emersonian connection between God and landscape.
Demeter features as the Ancient Greek goddess of harvest and agriculture, and, later, the patron saint of agriculture. Even after paganism was banned throughout the Roman Empire, farmers continued to pray to her as “Saint Demetra.”
Ngô Đình Diệm was the first president of South Vietnam from 1955 until he was captured and assassinated during the 1963 South Vietnamese coup. Diệm opened the door to U.S. involvement in Vietnam as part of his nation-building projects, including land reform, a topic that Nguyen explores across her new body of work.
Nguyen’s vibrant paintings—whose symphonic space is made through overlaying painting, printing, drawing, metal leafing, and rubber stamping with custom-made tools—combine pictorial strategies of reflection and mirroring, drawn from Emerson’s philosophy of nature. In one large-scale painting, Nguyen mythologizes three figures involved in Vietnamese land reform programs whose passport photos she found in the National Archives of the United States. Their countenances are halved across the panels, portrayed against a panoramic landscape of mountains and overlaid with text drawn from documents found in archives.
In another, a disc plow and illustrations of Vietnamese farmers found in the archives are juxtaposed with a depiction of the Battle of Lexington and Daniel Chester French’s The Minute Man (1874), a statue in Concord that depicts the revolutionary solider stepping away from his plow.
Emerson, Jesus, Demeter, and Diệm appear again in the artist’s four collage-based works on paper. The texture and specificity of these works are taken from documents, including propaganda, found in the National Archives related to land reform programs in Vietnam. Across these works, she also includes the words from Ca Dao, propagandistic folk songs promoting land reform that circulated the countryside.
Finally, four unique artist books—discrete objects unto themselves and the heart of Nguyen’s practice—are also tied to the four seasons and the recurring figures central to this body of work. The artist books are constructed to resemble the mountainous landscapes pictured throughout, tying together Emerson’s conception of landscape and how the Vietnamese landscape was conceived as part of land reform, especially through the lens of the U.S. involvement.
About the Artist
Tammy Nguyen lives and works in Easton, Connecticut. Nguyen has a M.F.A. in Painting and Printmaking from Yale University, and a B.F.A. from Cooper Union.
After finishing at Cooper Union, she received a Fulbright Scholarship to study lacquer painting in Vietnam, where she remained for three years. She is Assistant Professor of Art at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. She is the founder of independent publishing imprint Passenger Pigeon Press.
She is the recipient of numerous awards, including a 2023 Guggenheim Fellowship in Fine Arts.
Nguyen’s first novel, “O,” was published in 2022 with Ugly Duckling Presse.
About the ICA
Since its founding in 1936, the ICA has shared the pleasures of reflection, inspiration, imagination, and provocation that contemporary art offers with its audiences. A museum at the intersection of contemporary art and civic life, the ICA has advanced a bold vision for amplifying the artist’s voice and expanding the museum’s role as educator, incubator, and convener.
The ICA is located at 25 Harbor Shore Drive, Boston, MA, 02210. For more information, call 617-478-3100 or visit our website at icaboston.org.