One to Watch

Kenny Nguyen: Materials as Metaphor

Kenny Nguyen explores cultural identity and displacement, using silk as a metaphor for his Vietnamese heritage. Kenny paints, sculpts, and builds up this tradition-rich material into complex tapestries that contemplate life between two cultures. Born in Vietnam, Kenny studied fashion design at Ho Chi Minh City University of Art and Architecture, and later painting at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he is now based. In 2017, Kenny received the Asia Contemporary Young Artist Excellence Award at the Sejong Museum of Art in Seoul. This year, in addition to completing the Gilfalag artist residency at the Gil Society and Akureyri Art Museum in Akureyri, Iceland, Kenny was named a 2020 Saatchi Art Rising Star.

Tell us about who you are and what you do. What’s your background?

I was born and grew up in a small village in the Mekong Delta, Southern Vietnam. I studied fashion design at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Architecture and worked for a design house as an assistant fashion designer. In 2010, my family and I moved to the United States to reside in Charlotte, North Carolina. I earned a BFA in Painting degree from the University of North Carolina in Charlotte and have been a full-time artist since 2015.

What does your work aim to say? What major themes do you pursue in your work?

My work often explores the concept of cultural identity, integration, and displacement. Most of my paintings or wall sculptures are constructed with silk fabric, a culturally-rich material and a metaphor for my identity. Being an immigrant and experiencing dramatic changes in the cultural environment, I was struggling to rebuild my identity. Making artwork has become a way to meditate and recall those lost memories. For example, After the Monsoon was constructed with hundreds of hand-cut silk fabric ribbons. It was inspired by the vivid color of a tropical landscape in Vietnam.

Can you walk us through your process for creating a work from beginning to end?

Having a mixed training background gives me the advantage of seeing from a very different perspective. I incorporate many techniques from fashion design into my studio practice. I investigate many different channels, including material, structure, texture, color, and movement. Working with a delicate and history-rich material like silk requires a lot of time, knowledge, and patience. It has become a ritual for me to step into my studio and start my day by cutting the fabric into pieces. And then, I try to connect them back together on the canvas with acrylic paint. 

Many of my reconstructed pieces are sculpted and installed to integrate with the surrounded space, or are mounted flat on a panel. The installations are based on the concept that our identities are always changing—the artwork will constantly transform in different times and spaces.

What series or artistic project are you working on next? 

I’ve participated in many artist residencies in the US, Europe, and Asia. I often stay at one location for a month, find new inspirations, and create new works. The pandemic has had a big impact on my recent artwork, as I can’t travel to places. But back in my home studio, I’m working on some large-scale paintings and commissioned installations. I’m also working on a video and a book project—hopefully, they will be published by 2021.

Why art?

I can’t live without art.

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