ArtWeekend

Cyclops, Bananas, and the Art World’s Race Problem

How do persons of color get into the history of painting after it has excluded them?

Tammy Nguyen, “Đức Mẹ Chuối” (2018), mixed media on panel, 60 x 40 inches (photo by Jenny Gorman, image courtesy the artist and Crush Curatorial)

In the 1960s, two artists moved to the Bay Area after spending considerable time away from the United States. After long sojourns abroad, returning to America unleashed an understanding of just how grotesque and imbecilic their country had always been. Chronologically speaking, Peter Saul returned to America at the beginning of the decade (1962) while Robert Colescott came back near the end (around 1969).

A lot had transpired during those eight convulsive years: the assassinations of a President, his brother, and many dozens of Civil Rights leaders and workers; the mayhem of the Vietnam War and the hundreds of thousands of deaths it caused; the antiwar movement; the birth of the Black Panther party in Oakland and its systematic decimation by the FBI. If that wasn’t enough, they were also offended by Pop Art, its cool surfaces and seemingly neutral approach.

In 1975, both Saul and Colescott riffed on Emmanuel Leutze’s commemorative history painting, “Washington Crossing the Delaware” (1851), in which General Washington stands proudly in the boat being rowed across the icy river. In Saul’s version, “Washington Crossing the Delaware” (1975), the boat is sinking, and British and American soldiers are standing on yellow and caramel-colored ice floes, shooting holes through each others’ heads. Washington, holding an absurdly tiny flag, is seated on a pink horse that is trying to escape the dory.

Nicole Won Hee Maloof, What color is a banana? (2017), film still from single-channel video (color, sound), running time 13:01 (image courtesy the artist and Crush Curatorial)

In his painting, “George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook” (1975), Colescott surrounds the slight, bespectacled figure of the black botanist and inventor with degrading black stereotypes of a cook, a bare-bottomed Aunt Jemima, a boozer, and a cigar-smoking banjo player.

A lot of critics have understandably written about Saul and Colescott’s satirical intent and use of parody, but they never quite delve into the garish vulgarity of their painting style, and their imaginative use of grotesque exaggeration to visually appeal to viewers while simultaneously getting under their skin — and skin color is very much on their mind. Recognizing that America is made up of more than two races — something mainstream America and supposedly liberal Hollywood are still trying to wrap their heads around — they painted their figures all shades of brown, black, yellow, and red.

Maybe you need to leave America for more than a vacation to a protected beach resort in order to begin to understand how grotesque it is. We have to wonder, have any of those white folks who show up at the President’s screaming mob rallies ever left their home county?

Tammy Nguyen, who was born in San Francisco in 1984, went to Vietnam in 2007-08 as a Fulbright scholar to study lacquer painting. After her scholarship ended she stayed on, working as the “Concepts Team Manager” for My Duc Ceramics as the company tried to expand its market.

In addition to lacquer painting, Nguyen learned taxidermy when she worked as a volunteer at William Robertson Coe Ornithology Library, which is housed in the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. In July of 2017, I met Nguyen at the Asian American Literature Festival, which was presented by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center at various venues in Washington, DC. Shortly after I came back to New York, I wrote about her book projects and subscribed to her Passenger Pigeon Press, which she started in 2016, and have been following her work ever since.

I had not, however, seen any of her paintings until recently. One of the reasons that I cited Saul and Colescott is because, like them, Nguyen is interested in visual narrative as well as retelling well-known tales, stories, and myths.

Nicole Won Hee Maloof, What color is a banana? (2017), film still from single-channel video (color, sound), running time 13:01 (image courtesy the artist and Crush Curatorial)

How do you get yourself (a person of color) into the history of painting when it has excluded you? Wifredo Lam felt excluded, as do many artists of color working today, no matter the critical reception. For an artist of Asian descent, it must seem doubly so at times, because America thinks of itself as black and white — and isn’t even comfortable with that, as our “Nationalist” President just made clear.

Many of these thoughts were generated while I was sitting in front of Nguyen’s painting, “Đức Mẹ Chuối” (60 by 40 inches, mixed media on panel, 2018), which is included in the two-person exhibition of Nguyen and Nicole Won Hee Maloof, One Blue Eye, Two Servings, at Crush Curatorial. 

Maloof’s contribution to the exhibition revolves around her single-channel video (color, sound, 2017), What color is a banana, while Nguyen’s work consists of paintings, which take Book 9 of The Odyssey, where Odysseus outsmarts and blinds the Cyclops Polyphemus, as a starting point.

Although Maloof works in video, etching, and silkscreen, and Nguyen makes paintings, the work in this exhibition shares two things: the motif of the banana and a concern about how Asians are perceived in and by America. The deeper thing that Maloof and Nguyen share is the thoroughness of their research. No matter what subject they focus on, they dive deep into every corner as well as ponder every possibility.

Maloof’s video touches upon the banana as slang, as a color, and as a fruit farmed by large corporations that care little for their workers. The images we see in her dry, riveting video — with voiceover from SIRI — are derived from Google Maps, movies, advertisements, science diagrams, and other sources, all seamlessly woven together like a series of discrete yet connected thoughts and observations by someone in pursuit of the many ways a banana can be identified and understood.

One reason to see this exhibition is “Đức Mẹ Chuối,” which means “Holy Mother of Bananas,” a nearly life-size painting that restates Sandro Botticelli’s well-known depiction of a female nude in “Birth of Venus” (1484–1486) as a yellow-skinned, female Cyclops. Nguyen’s transformation of this appealingly accessible image of idealized Western beauty is disarming, coolly precise, and edgy. In Botticelli’s tempera painting, the newly born Venus stands nude in a giant seashell, having been blown ashore by the wind god Zephyr. She holds the ends of her long tresses in front of her crotch, while she partially covers her breast with her other hand.

Tammy Nguyen, “Yolanda” (2018), mixed media on panel, 30 x 40 inches (photo by Jenny Gorman, image courtesy the artist and Crush Curatorial)

According to Greek myth, Venus was born when Cronus, son of Gaia and Uranus, castrated his father and threw his testicles into the sea, causing it to foam. Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, was born from this foam. The violent backstory is part of what Nguyen is responding to, transforming this image of idealized beauty into a wild-haired Cyclops: she is the Other — a disquieting, exotic figure who is anything but compliant. In Nguyen’s painting, the giant scallop shell has become a fan-like cluster of spotted brown bananas. Fleshier than Botticelli’s idealized beauty, the Cyclops’s pose perfectly echoes its inspiration.

Instead of holding her tresses, as Botticelli’s Venus does, Nguyen’s figure grasps a thick purple stem (or, more accurately a “pseudostem”), which emerges from her vagina and is topped by a large purple inflorescence.

The soil the figure is standing on is black, while the surf froths agitatedly behind her. Meanwhile, a diving mask with the word “ANYONE” written across its single blue lens is entangled in the Cyclops’s wild, swirling strands of hair, recalling Ulysses telling Polyphemus that his name was “Nobody.”

Painted in watercolor and Flashe on paper, which is mounted on a stretcher, Nguyen has pushed her practice into the realm of painting. She does so with remarkable verve, both technically and image-wise. I started off this review by citing two precedents — Saul’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware” and Colescott’s “George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook.” Perhaps the art world will open its eyes and realize that people of other colors — besides black and white — are making important paintings.

Nicole Won Hee Maloof and Tammy Nguyen: One Blue Eye, Two Servings continues at Crush Curatorial (526 West 26th Street, Suite 709, Chelsea, Manhattan) though November 10.

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