At first glance, the photorealistic paintings of misty forests, Grassy fields and green farmland just look like sublime landscapes. But the black-and-white acrylic works on paper—some monumental 6 by 8 feet, others as small as 6 by 8 inches—represent much more. as an anchor Vietnam Peace Project, Minneapolis artist Teo Nguyen’s solo exhibition which opened July 30 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, they reference iconic but tragic news photographs taken during the Vietnam War. (Two of the most famous works are by AP photographers: Nick Ut’s photo of children fleeing a napalm attack and Eddie Adams’ photo of the execution of Nguyen Van Lem, a suspected Viet Cong.)
“We’re looking at these images of war within these archived identities, but beyond those frames I really want to explore as an artist,” says Nguyen, who immigrated to the United States from Vietnam when he was 16. “There is so much beyond imagery that no one talks about – especially the cultural and spiritual aspects of the Vietnamese people. Vietnam is not just a war. It is one country and one people. I wanted to talk to humanity about it.”
Nguyen accomplished this by removing the atrocities from the images. It’s an approach he carefully considered with his husband, Micah Tran, also a Vietnamese-American.
“We’ve watched the media misrepresent us – tell our stories – misrepresent and misunderstand who we are,” says Tran.
We chat over coffee at the couple’s mid-century hillside home in Golden Valley, which is also home to Nguyen’s smallest and best-known studio (of three in the city). Of course, our topic is difficult. The Vietnam War remains one of the most charged, painful, and contentious events in modern history. More than anything else, the story Nguyen tells is about peace as a practice – and art, along with memory, imagination and empathy, is his tool.
“I don’t want this project to be about us versus them or good versus bad,” he says. “That is the way to keep creating conflict. So we can take a gun and kill. Because if we don’t understand that other people like us are full of complexities, then it’s easy to kill.”
Born in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, two years after the war ended, Nguyen never met his grandparents or uncle — all were killed in the war — and he grew up with bomb shelters in his backyard and the ever-present fear of war returning at any moment. He and his friends froze when they heard a helicopter overhead. And he will never forget his recurring nightmare.
“I can absolutely see it: This bomb is always about six inches above my head,” says Nguyen. “I had this dream for about four years – the same dream every single night. I just run away from this bombshell until I’m super exhausted and then I wake up and think: Oh my god, that was a dream.”
But he also remembers rain falling on the corrugated iron roof of his home and the US-issued military blanket that kept him comfortable and cool against his skin. “It felt so nice to lie under that blanket and listen to the rain.”
Vietnam Peace Project is not just an opportunity for Nguyen to come to terms with Vietnam’s experiences. It also carries his hope of raising awareness of the toll of war.
“It’s really sad when we look at the war in Vietnam and how many ‘Vietnam wars’ happened after that,” he says. “History repeats itself. And everything stems from this intolerance of difference.”
Nguyen hopes the show will also engage viewers about making peace a personal practice. And these actions can be simple.
“If you’re going to vote or help someone or even just stop your car to let someone cross the street, that’s a peace practice,” he says.
Much of how he and Tran see things stems from their values as animists, who believe that all things have spirit. It’s values that are permeated not only in Nguyen’s landscapes in Vietnam but also in his landscapes of the Midwest, where the composition of scale and view – with the horizon line low, under a sweeping sky – alludes to an outsider like himself, who the site absorbs the scene and human stories.
“The serenity really speaks to me,” says Nguyen. “I don’t know how much of this has to do with my experience as someone who grew up in a war-torn country, but looking at these farms I’m always curious what their life is like. I think of Vietnam – I can’t help but think about it. So I think about the other part of the world and what happened there, and I think about my adopted country.”
In fact, both countries play into Nguyen’s identity. After being sponsored by a brother living in California, he moved to San Jose where he graduated from high school before eventually moving to Orange County where he met Tran. However, landing in Minnesota (for 17 years now!) was never meant to be part of the plan. “To be honest, we were headed east — we only wanted to stay here for five years,” says Tran. Nguyen nods. “But we put down our roots here, with our dear friends, now our family,” he adds.
Even as he drove through Nebraska and Iowa en route to Minnesota, Nguyen was struck by the vastness.
“There was something to it,” he says. “I wanted to do these really big, wide skies and keep the landscape in this horizontal.”
Despite artistic skills dating back to drawing as a child — and honed for a time in his 20s at art school — it’s been less than 10 years since Nguyen began making a living as an artist.
“When I applied to museums or galleries, I was rejected every time,” he says. “That dream had kind of died for me. I hoped that maybe one day when I die, someone would get hold of my collection and do something good with it.”
But “something good” happened so much sooner. Minneapolis interior designer Martha Dayton, a friend, recognized Nguyen’s talent.
“She always said, ‘You have to show your work; You have to share these with others,” he says. “I finally said, ‘If you want to do it, she Do it.'”
And she did. She told her uncle Ralph Burnet about the Burnet Gallery, now Burnet Fine Art and Advisory. He and the gallery’s director, Jennifer Phelps, arranged to visit Nguyen’s home studio.
“I didn’t have much space to draw there, but Ralph and Jennifer came over and looked at everything and said, ‘We’ll give you a show,'” Nguyen says.
And he remembers the exact date it opened: July 9, 2014 — just three days after he and Tran got married. 38 of his paintings were hung in the former Burnet Gallery in the Chambers Hotel in downtown Minneapolis.
“They literally sold them all the first night,” he says of the surreal moment. “I was walking through the gallery and I kept saying, ‘Oh my god, that’s so weird, that’s so weird.’ Do you know the courtyard of the Chambers Hotel? I went out and cried. I could not believe it.”
No one has ever loved their art enough to spend money to buy it, he says. And now, Burnet and Phelps—suddenly running out of Nguyen’s work for sale—asked him if he had anything else.
“I went through my studio and pulled out 13 other paintings, and they just sold like that,” he says.
Part of the immense interest in Nguyen’s work stemmed from the fact that its photorealistic quality surprised people.
“Ralph and Jennifer were like, ‘Yeah, those are paintings,’ and people were like, ‘What? These aren’t photos?’” he says. “Sometimes I think people from afar think they’re photographs.”
Photorealism is not Nguyen’s only artistic style. He is also successful with his abstracts.
“People get a little bit — not confused — but it’s like, ‘How do you go from abstraction to photorealism?'” he says. “For me, it’s like speaking multiple languages. Do I want to speak one language or several languages? I would like to speak several languages.”
Since this and subsequent successes, Nguyen has expanded the studio space at his Golden Valley home and added two additional offsite studios for large-scale work, including 16,000 square feet of Sociable Cider Werks in northeast Minneapolis. He even has a space that he uses as a showroom near the Guthrie Theatre. And he’s not done yet.
“I hope that one day I’ll have enough funds to open a really cool gallery,” he says. “It’s one of my dreams.”
A DREAM COME REALIZED
But today his dream is taking shape at Mia, where these dramatic landscapes are joined by more artworks by Nguyen that celebrate the culture and people of Vietnam and commemorate the lives of the lost. One such work is a 15-minute film he directed, inspired by poetry written by his 88-year-old mother. Expelled from her village in central Vietnam for 57 years between the wars of France, Japan and America, she gradually moved further and further south.
“She just gives me so much hope because if something like this happened to me, I don’t know if I could have that positive attitude towards life,” says Nguyen.
The film is not about the war but about the memories of a place dear to his mother.
“The beauty of this story about my mother is that she doesn’t define her life through her war experience,” he says. “Yes, the film is about her poetry and her experience of displacement, but also everything she loved and encouraged along the way.”
Another gallery will be dedicated to an installation of 61 stacks of paper on the gallery floor, measuring 90 inches by 90 inches. One pile reads “58,220” to commemorate the lives of American servicemen and women. The other 60 stacks are empty.
“We have records of every American who was sent to Vietnam and died in the war, but we have no records of the Vietnamese,” Nguyen says. “There are estimates that six million Vietnamese died in this war, but they are unnamed.”
A photo installation will hang around the corner in the stairwell next to the atrium of the finish wing. It will function as a sculpture, drawing attention to the devastation caused by Agent Orange defoliant.
“There are parts of Vietnam with the highest cancer rates in the world, and no one really knows,” says Nguyen. “If you look at the Agent Orange images, you see all the trees completely stripped of everything.” So he took those images, enlarged them into a very abstract form, and printed them on 700 strips of clear film, “much like branches,” he says . “It’s about the invisibility of the poison, but how it still rages and affects people.”
The final gallery focuses on the lotus, Vietnam’s national flower and a symbol of optimism. Nguyen’s paintings on 10 paper panels form an 11-by-50-foot lotus pond, which in many ways serves as a further tribute to his mother.
“She’s like this lotus that grew out of the mud,” he says. “After years of displacement and witnessing the horrors of many wars, she still finds beauty in everything.”
And that’s fitting for the final gallery of the show.
“It seemed to me,” says Nguyen, “that the end message should be an optimistic sentiment to go beyond — even if it’s imprinted on the land — and to come together and celebrate our humanity.”
Vietnam Peace ProjectMia, July 30, 2022-18. June 2023, 2400 3rd Ave. S., Mpls.