“She left the lukewarm cups, her foot slipping as she stepped through pools of wine and perfumes, and trampling on the flowers, and was making her drunken way to the war. […] And by this time the whole array, its standards turned about, was treacherously submitting of its own will to a desire to surrender, wishing to be the slaves of Indulgence, to bear the yoke of a debauched mistress.” Prudentius, Psychomachia
In the allegorical poem Psychomachia, “The Battle of Spirits”, the 4th century Roman writer Prudentius has Christian virtues fight and prevail over the personifications of evil. Faith battling Worship-of-the-Old-Gods, Soberness confronting Indulgence, Chastity against “Lust the Sodomite.” A strange poem for a strange time: where a state, long certain of its divine exceptionalism, renegotiates the conception of what that divine is, while attempting to preserve the exceptional. Convinced of witnessing a fundamental civilizational fracture, Prudentius borrows ancient epic traditions to recount the Christian faith, wanting to weave together the old ways with the new ideology, and ended up distorting both. Every generation has its illusions about civilization, some see it flaring up, others witness it being dashed out, where in reality it is a conflagration. Constantly blazing, smoldering, extinguishing, depending from where one looks.
The paintings of Julien Nguyen could be described as inflammatory, a word both used to describe medical eruption and chemical ignition. While he might be aware of the illusions regarding the ending and creation of civilization, the awareness doesn’t change the necessity of dynamics of development. So he enlists on both sides, as fireman and pyromaniac to amplify extreme positions to generate content and accelerate evolution. This fluid reality, where the process is a means in and of itself and where no final aims can be achieved, is best faced by a player. Those virtual agents as in videogames of infinite choice and power, who must select and cultivate armor, abilities, psychological fortitude, statecraft, and physical attraction. In events like these no dress code applies. Nguyen mines history both idealized and demonized to stockpile in his practice.
Born in Fairfax, Virginia, and raised in Los Angeles during the 1990s, Nguyen internalized the myth of America as a revivified Rome. Only he misunderstood this to mean the Eastern Roman Empire, where ascension was based on porphyrgenitus, or being born in the porphyry room. Decorational intrigue, bribery, mutilation, or theological esoterica rather than any classical conception of civic duty.
Feeling so inclined, the artist worked his craft from an early age, studying first in the air-conditioned workshops of the San Fernando Valley, where middle age hobbyists gathered to idolize Bouguereau and Gérôme; to paint men with fedoras or women with feather boas. After a stint at the personal studio of a bitter septuagenarian illustrator from Haverhill, Massachusetts, he continued on through the standard academic art programs in Rhode Island, then Frankfurt. It was at this final stop that we met, while I was pursuing a PhD thesis in Neuroscience and gathering all of the many-fold requirements necessary to write this review.
Besides occasional sculptures, the works are predominantly paintings, formerly on linen (oil primed, Belgian), now preferentially on wood panels (birch or mahogany ply, with a chalk ground). Many works are executed meticulously using old master techniques such as verdaccio and grisaille. Others are quick and dirty (The Integrated Library System, 2015), some leave a lot of free ground (Blue is the Warmest Color, 2016), or float in fine silverpoint or watercolor (Your Only Weapon is Your Entire Life, 2015; Mr. Whitaker, 2013). Often the meticulous and the dirty mingle freely (Jeu de Paume, 2015). There are flowers, dying planets, animals, architecture, stars from the gay porn industry and women of power – Hillary Clinton (A Mother at the Edge of Forever, 2013), Christine Lagarde (New World Order, 2016), Kathryn Bigelow (A Mother Who Loves Her Children, 2013).
The mimetic arts are inherently about power, either legitimating or mocking. The represented subjects and objects claim space and thereby the acknowledgment of presence or agency. Nguyen’s images all relate to a projection of specific shapes of power as well as their delusional reception and receptacles. Power held elsewhere, in the hands of the unknown other, is at the core of conspiracy theories formed by the pathological readings of globalization. Be it an amorphous international elite, or aliens, lizard people, etc. In these works it is the hallucinations of power, which want to be acknowledged.
But out of some bipolar logic, paranoia usually co-occurs with blind devotion. So it is not surprising that one finds a certain totalitarian impulse, the occasional mania of power, in these paintings. In Jeu de Paume (2015) a brutal looking robot/waterpolo player is eying a beautiful young German, exhausted in a club after one or two nights of partying. Painted in a cubism that is less analytic deconstruction than a sort of pneumatic shredding of structure, the robot captures the wish that something new of pure power is let from the leash to deal swiftly with the exhausted old. That dynamic of power and domination set in place by painting and reception strikes overtly in The Office of the Night (2015). A seascape-nocturne with a red planet in the sky, a demonic single mast ship and a narcissus flower in the foreground. It is so horrible, it could hang in a dentist’s office displaying a relative’s hobby-paintings. It provokes the viewer into a game of who flinches first. Can the viewer bear longer to look at it or the artist bear longer to produce such works?
Most seductive are paintings like Point Break (2015) and Say Goodbye to Safe (2016). Here the artist ropes together strangely distorted architectures with wall painting in a too-late Pompeian style, forming stained dark rooms with the hovering shell of Piero della Francesca’s Brera Madonna. Drawing from Mannerism and a Greco-Roman tradition as the only periods where art provided a natural homoeroticism, male bodies are again turned into objects such as surfers from Verrocchio beach, or as a dead, partially x-rayed Dieric Bouts’ figure with smeared lip-stick. Something ugly has already been clawing at this world, which as in the Renaissance is less a rebirth of historical reality than a future created through a distorted view of antiquity. As in 1815, when the state of North Carolina commissioned a statue of George Washington as a virtuous Roman statesman from Antonio Canova.
This future does not seem to be long lasting. It is the great formal knowledge of painting with a deeply American approach to appropriation, which makes these works both fantastical and precise. From Jefferson’s Monticello to the nonchalant usage of pseudo-historical imagery in Game of Thrones there is a complex narrative of how the US sees itself, which is very different from the purism and guilt present in Europe in regard to its own history. Cinema is the apotheosis of American art and many of these paintings are reminiscent of the sets which we have all became accustomed with, where history provides customizable elements to form contemporary allegories of our magnificent species. Maybe this is about Nguyen making beautiful pictures in the last years before the robots take over. Maybe he wants to be the one to create the works, which allow the rest of us to remember how beautiful it was. To make himself indispensable for the time after the catastrophe, where only the ascended may descend to shelter. To secure his ticket to the bunker.
by Lorenz Pammer