Thu 23 Mar 2023 to Sat 6 May 2023
Artist: Tammy Nguyen
“To get back up to the shining world from there
My guide and I went into that hidden tunnel,
And following its path, we took no care
To rest, but climbed: he first, then I-so far,
through a round aperture I saw appear
Some of the beautiful things that Heaven bears,
Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars.”
—Dante Alighieri, Inferno
Lehmann Maupin presents A Comedy for Mortals: Inferno, Tammy Nguyen’s first solo exhibition with the gallery and her first in Korea. Inferno includes thirty-one new works in total: thirteen paintings, nine works on paper, and a selection of artist books, encompassing Nguyen’s multimedia practice.
The exhibition is the first in a three-part series based on the Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri’s canonical masterpiece of Christian literature. A Comedy for Mortals: Purgatorio will open in our London gallery in 2024, and the series will culminate in 2025 with A Comedy for Mortals: Paradisio, Nguyen’s New York debut. This fall, Nguyen will present a new body of work in her first solo museum show at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston.
Nguyen’s multidisciplinary practice explores the intersections between geopolitics, ecology, and lesser-known histories, often taking a narrative approach. Across her media—Nguyen also produces artist books under her publishing platform Passenger Pigeon Press—the artist aims to unsettle. In particular, the elegant imagery and harmonious aesthetic of Nguyen’s paintings often belies the turbulent nature of the narratives at hand. She probes this tension between form and content by confusing the visual plane, which she achieves through intricate visual metaphor nestled in dense layers of diverse material.
In Inferno, Nguyen carefully considers the ways that language and narrative construct areas of moral ambiguity or ethical confusion. She envisions these sociocultural gray areas as potential thresholds leading to paradigm shifts, and she often models characters who might usher in these moments of transformation. Across the exhibition, Nguyen draws a parallel between two distinct narratives, separated by centuries but united in their mania to map the furthest reaches of the celestial universe: Virgil and Dante’s religious pilgrimage through the nine rings of hell and the secular Race for Space that defined Cold War-Era politics. She renders both fictional and historical characters from each story in an overlapping fashion, charting their journeys across a sea of interconnected icons, partially obscured text, abstract patterns, and figurative imagery. As the artist says, in her rendition of Inferno, “up is down, and down is up.” Drawing spatial and literary parallels between two historical narratives that shaped the contemporary Western worldview, Nguyen paints the ascent into space as equivalent to the descent into hell—a reversal that extends her lines of questioning into an array of larger concerns, including colonialism, religion, violence, and environmentalism.
In the Inferno, the character Virgil is tasked with leading Dante (who seeks moral enlightenment) on a spiritual journey through the nine rings of hell. In Nguyen’s Leading the Way (2023), Virgil’s form consumes the picture plane and seems to emerge from a pattern of apparent foliage, which upon close inspection, reveals itself as a web of serpentine creatures with human heads and scorpion tails (monsters from the Inferno story). The surface of the canvas is covered in tiny and reflective metal leaf stamps shaped like missiles and rockets; from afar, the canvas appears to be covered in stars or raindrops. The outline of a circle anchors the composition in the lower left corner, the interior of this circle distinctly sparse compared to its dense surroundings. According to Nguyen, this circle represents the moon—again, directionality is inverted. As Virgil descends into Hell, he makes celestial contact. Similarly, in My Guide and I (2023), Virgil and Dante appear side by side against another mass of greenery and snake creatures. A warm orange and pink glow emanates from the background, indicating that the two have completed their journey and will exit hell into a new dawn—or perhaps Virgil and Dante have completed their space expedition and are approaching the heat and light of the sun.
Across the thirteen paintings, Nguyen disperses a variety of spaceship imagery, most notably what appear as cross sections or floor plans for rocket ships. In From Nation to Nation and Race to Race (2023), an American flag appears encased in the grill of a spaceship, as though held captive; at the same time, the flag spans the entirety of the layout, threatening to consume the ship. And in This Place is Circular (2023), an image of John F. Kennedy appears alongside both a rocketship and the presidential seal, and the same layering of lush vegetation integrates the imagery. Here, Nguyen extends her consideration of ethical ambiguity to American leadership during the Space Race, offering a broader critique of colonial history.
Nguyen’s material process directly translates her conceptual focus. She works in many layers—using a variety of materials and techniques including watercolor, vinyl paint, screenprinting, stamping, gilding, and tooling—repeatedly obscuring and revealing her subjects to build visual confusion. She works on paper stretched over panel, which allows her compositions to maintain a distinct flatness and clarity despite the density of materials and imagery. Nguyen begins by covering each surface in a wash of paint, then moves into the screenprinting process; finally, Nguyen renders her subjects intertwined with various patterns or motifs in many layers of vinyl paint.
In her Inferno paintings, Nguyen uses a glow-in-the-dark ink during the screenprinting process. In dim lighting, partially obscured archival headlines from the Cold War-era newspaper “Stars and Stripes” blaze forth, their verbiage including “Space Comrades Land as Heros” and “US Will Beat Russia to the Moon.” The “Stars and Stripes” was the only periodical accessible to American soldiers stationed in Vietnam during the Cold War, and the headlines reflect the specific and siloed information offered to soldiers overseas. Their inclusion also integrates Nguyen’s enduring interest in Southeast Asia and the diaspora. A Vietnamese-American herself, the artist analyzes the distribution of Cold War and Space Race information in the region while drawing a parallel between Vietnam's tropical climate and the heat of both the biblical concept of hell and the planetary body of the sun.
Nguyen often conceives of her painting practice in relation to the construction of artist’s books, objects whose intimate scale, interactive potential, and literary connotations invite a range of interventions in the materiality of language. A Comedy for Mortals: Inferno includes a series of artist books. Each book unfolds in layers, ultimately evoking the shape of a spaceship. Nguyen includes language pulled directly from the original Inferno text, then redacts or manipulates certain portions of the stanzas to create her own idiosyncratic translation. These artist’s books bring the body of work full circle and return Ngyuen’s narrative and conceptual threads to their roots: an exploration of the malleability of language and its power to construct and dissolve worlds.