NETWORK OF ENTERTAINING ASIAN AMERICAN TALENT
Trong Gia Nguyen
Vietnam-born New Yorker Trong Gia Nguyen has a history of making artwork that activates an unusually high level of criticality. In The Diabolical, he has mobilised the cultural authority of not only the art object but the very wall it hangs on to impose upon the viewer an authoritarian quantification of his/her physical presence.
These impasto works, which are always painted the same colour as the walls they occupy, reproduce the height charts used in police stations and retail spaces. Sized up under the paintings’ watchful scrutiny, the viewer is rendered subject and suspect: peeps is perps.
In 2001, against great protest, then New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani proposed the formation of a decency committee to restrict artistic freedom in New York City. This was in response to Renee Cox’s naked self-portrait as Jesus in a group exhibit of contemporary African-American photographers at the Brooklyn Museum. A year prior to that, Giuliani fought and lost a battle to evict the same cultural institution over an “immoral” work by Chris Ofili in the Sensation exhibit.
Its namesake inspired by the inexplicable stories of Jules Amedee Barbey D’Aurevilly, The Diabolical is an installation that swells with the same demonic control and power fancied by wayward politicians. In this case, the possession of this control comes from the work establishing its own restrictions and “standards” that direct the viewer’s experience of seeing art and orchestrating the looking process from beginning to end.
The Diabolical installation consists of a series of variously sized monochromatic paintings. Each canvas is a variation of the “crime lines” one sees at police stations, used to identify the heights of suspects. Some of these paintings depict horizontal bands and cardinal numbers, while others just contain the demarcating lines. The paintings themselves are painted whatever wall color they hang on, or vice-versa. Subtly they blend in with their backgrounds. Necessarily, the lines and numbers are rendered in impasto, allowing them to be repeatedly painted over without losing what is represented – at least until the layers are so numerous and the paint so thick that they are hidden. In this way, the works assume a belying passiveness, with each subsequent layer of color adding a page to their evident provenance. “Painting over” also becomes a coy comment on the futileness of restoration, “touching up,” and other de riguer archival practices that attempt to freeze time.
Together, these seemingly innocuous works surround and ambush the viewer inside an “incriminating” space that, like it or not, forces him into a position where all attempts at “gazing” are negated and swiveled in favor of the work itself. It is entrapment.
When a viewer enters any exhibition space, he or she determines the conditions for looking at art — how long to look at the work, under what aesthetic criteria, and so on. By disarming the notion of the “gaze” and taking control of the seeing process, via the simple act of displacement, all these choices become moot, leaving the viewer powerless to initiate the looking process. Lacking this traditional control, the viewer is thereby placed under the work’s watchful scrutiny, where looking becomes an act of paranoia, self-incrimination, guilt, and indecency.
On one final note of playful subversion, The Diabolical’s lines and numbers are painted to accurately represent the heights they depict when the canvases are hung at the institutional 60-inch middle marker, which, like good or bad taste, is arbitrary.
Trong G. Nguyen