A memorial commemorating the life of South Seattle artist Tuan Nguyen was held at the Rainier Arts Center on June 15. Photo courtesy of Leah Nguyen

(This article was originally published online in the South Seattle Emerald, and is republished here with permission.)

On a recent windy, sunny Saturday afternoon, dozens of people shuffled into the Rainier Arts Center to honor the life of late South Seattle multimedia artist Tuan Nguyen. Known for his experimental, delightfully strange painting-sculptures and comics, Nguyen died of cancer on March 12. He was 51. He is survived by his wife, fellow artist Leah Nguyen, and his child, Pasha.

His friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, and loved ones gathered at the RAC to remember Nguyen’s impact on their lives, their art, their community. An altar commemorating Nguyen welcomed visitors into the space that his family decorated with giant bushels of flowers.

Throughout the ceremony, his family members and friends stepped up to the mic to share their memories of Nguyen — his dark sense of humor, his compassion, his patience, his creativity. The group sang “Across the Universe” by The Beatles (one of Nguyen’s favorite songs) and “Down Under” by Men at Work (a song he’d sing on a loop to the exasperation of his loved ones). After the ceremony, friends gathered to eat bánh mì and participate in a game of exquisite corpse, a family favorite.

In his work that appeared in shows at places like Specialist Gallery and the Wing Luke Museum, Nguyen ripped apart the recognizable elements of painting and drawings — canvas, paper, graphite, wood, paint — and reassembled them back together into something far more compelling and interesting.

Freaky, wooden, sawdust-y alien hands covered in green grasshoppers. A cobra made of hot dogs and preserved in piss-yellow jello. A cube-shaped painting featuring G.I. Joe floating in the cosmic nothingness of space and death. Aliens peeling off their human suits while sipping beer and watching television. At times both grotesque and humorous, Nguyen’s work meditated on the experience of being a refugee, parenthood, life, death, alienation, the weirdness of American culture, and the feeling of not quite belonging here or elsewhere.

“In my artwork, I like to use materials and items that are close to me and that can be transformed in some way — canvas scraps from my painting practice, T-shirts I’ve worn, towels I’ve used,” Nguyen wrote in an artist statement for Tacoma Art Museum’s show “Soft Power.” “My work sometimes requires patience and openness. It’s not meant to be mysterious or opaque. Spend time with the work, as it often reveals itself at a slower pace than perhaps what we’re used to these days. For best results, view without expectations.”

In his washed drawings series, he’d tear up several pieces of paper, bundle them with rubber bands, then send them through the washing machine to become wet, washed, and clumped together. He’d then take those pieces and construct unsettling sculptures out of them — a baby, a cat, eyes. Or in his “spiderweb” series, Nguyen watered down acrylic paint and composed spider web patterns on raw canvas stretched onto an octagonal panel, which gave each piece a blown-out, entrancing effect. Looking at them was like looking into a vortex of ghostly patterned apparitions.

“He did a lot of kung fu, and there’s something in kung fu where you use soft focus — you’re not looking at one particular point, you’re looking overall and it makes it so you can see everything. The spiderwebs make you focus, but are also kind of blurry,” Leah Nguyen reflected in a recent interview. “He thought about them being kind of like this cosmic portal. He thought a lot about things being opened up and you being drawn in but they also catch you.”

“Washed cat” made of machine-washed scraps of paper, acrylic, and marbles. Art by Tuan Nguyen

“He also loved Spiderman as a kid,” she added.

Born in Saigon, Vietnam, in 1972, Nguyen and his family fled the country during the fall of Saigon and landed as refugees in Rockledge, Florida, in 1975. In a 2019 interview I did with Nguyen for The Stranger, he told me he used to watch NASA launch space shuttles from the shores of Cocoa Beach as a kid, an influence that perhaps seeps into his work in the form of aliens. The eighth kid of 10, Nguyen grew up relentlessly creative, loving comic books and bikes.

After getting his bachelor’s in fine art at the University of Florida, Gainesville, in 1994, he attended the University of Washington and graduated with a master’s in fine art in 1999. It was there he met Leah and they married in 2003. They spent a decade and a half moving around the country to New York City and St. Louis, before landing back in Seattle in 2016 and moving to Columbia City in 2017.

Throughout that time, Nguyen nurtured his love of art and painting. He worked in various jobs that spoke to his ability and curiosity — antique reproduction work, sculpture airbrushing, custom painting wallpaper. In 2006 while in St. Louis, Nguyen got into art administration, working as gallery director at COCA and eventually the director of education at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. Here in Seattle, he continued to do education and art consulting work at the (now defunct) Meta Open Arts program and Lumiere Group.

“As a teacher, he impacted so many people,” said close friend, curator, and art consultant Lele Barnett. The two first met while guarding art at the Seattle Art Museum as UW students and have been friends ever since. “He had this incredible patience, gentleness, and kindness. I don’t know anyone else who had that level of patience with other people.”

Even into his illness, Nguyen made work ripe with his signature dark humor and creativity as he grappled with his own mortality. In his “pain body” series, he crafted a painting-sculpture made of boney, craggy-looking driftwood, covered in dark gray acrylic paint and sawdust. Wedged into the various crevices of the piece are coins Nguyen noted he found and collected during cancer treatment, giving a sort of darkness to the piece. And, of course, he titled the sculpture “Good Luck.”

Though Nguyen has passed on, his work is still visible in various spots throughout Seattle. He has a piece in “Soft Power,” a textile-based group exhibition exploring softness and resilience at the Tacoma Art Museum. “Tuan’’s work is so deeply connected to his own humanity and to himself — that’s really something that I just could never get enough of,” said Ellen Ito, a friend and curator of “Soft Power.” “It’s the way that he used materiality really spoke to me because Tuan’s work is relentlessly funky. It’s just so tactile.”

And over at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, two of Nguyen’s sculptures greet busy travelers on the south end of the ticketing level near the TSA PreCheck security checkpoint. Made with assistance from Leah, “if I die then let me be happy” and “take me home” are situated right next to one another in all their Tuan Nguyen weirdness and color — the former is one of his object-paintings hanging from a magenta backdrop and the latter is a collection of mini-sculptures shielded by a giant alien hand.

However, remembrance of Nguyen’s work isn’t limited to seeing his works in person.

“Whenever I reach into the pocket of a pair of pants and there’s a piece of paper — God knows what it used to be before you put it through the laundry — it will now forever be this fuzzy, weird wrinkly creature,” said Ito. “Every time I find one, I think of him. Like, ‘Wow, Tuan could really do something with this.’”

To see more of Tuan Nguyen’s work, head to his website, https://doglegnexus.com/home.html or Instagram, @thingsurcher

Jas Keimig is a writer and critic based in Seattle. They previously worked on staff at The Stranger, covering visual art, film, music, and stickers. Their work has also appeared in Crosscut, South Seattle Emerald, i-D, Netflix, and The Ticket. They also co-write Unstreamable for Scarecrow Video, a column and screening series highlighting films you can’t find on streaming services. They won a game show once.

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