Imagine you’re driving south through Iowa. Farm country. Fields and sky. The horizon is a straight line, a perfect horizontal. The fields are green and brown. The sky is an almost colorless color, light gray with the faintest trace of blue. Along the horizon, at a distance, are a house, a barn, silos, trees.
Except this is a photorealistic, meticulously detailed painting. A really large painting – 7 feet long, nearly 4 feet high. And heavy. Acrylic on vellum, permanently mounted to aluminum, pristinely framed in white-painted wood. You stand before it, trying to take it in. And it makes you ache with longing.
Teo Nguyen, the artist, came to the United States in 1992 from Vietnam. Just 15, he joined an older brother in California. The paperwork to bring him here had taken more than 10 years. He studied art and design in San Francisco, Fresno and Paris and later moved with his partner to Minneapolis. He was an artist, but he couldn’t make a living, so he learned to do hair and makeup and went to work at the Hair District in Uptown, where he started displaying some of his smaller abstracts.
Among his clients were art collectors, and one was Martha Dayton, who kept urging him to show his work. Dayton is related to Ralph Burnet – he’s her uncle – who owned Le Meridien Chambers Hotel with its first-floor, Hennepin Avenue-facing art gallery. The gallery director, Jennifer Phelps, went to see some of Nguyen’s landscapes, and he had his first solo show at the Chambers in 2014. More shows followed, and sales: to collectors, the Walker, the Weisman, the M, Mia, the History Center, General Mills and the North Dakota Museum of Art.
Nguyen stopped doing hair a year and a half ago. Last Saturday, when we met him at Burnet Fine Art & Advisory in Wayzata for his latest show, “Eclogue,” some of his former clients were there. All 18 paintings in “Eclogue” were created in 2020 and 2021.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
MinnPost: Do you always paint on vellum?
Teo Nguyen: I work with acrylic, oil, and watercolor on vellum, paper or canvas. I used to work predominantly with canvas when I started, but I ran out of studio space. Vellum is my favorite material to work with because I can travel with it. I can roll 10 paintings together in one roll and it just takes up a corner. It’s a great space-saving material.
MP: Why are your paintings so big?
TN: I don’t know! It’s tough for a lot of the collectors. They come in here and say, “I don’t have wall space!” And I don’t have an explanation for it. I’m just attracted to bigger work. I feel like it makes a bigger statement. Jennifer [Phelps] requested some smaller ones for the show. [He points to a painting on a table.] But those are tough for me to do. I’m not making them for anybody else.
So far, I’m very fortunate. I’ve been able to sell my bigger paintings. I’m working now on four that are 6 feet by 20 feet. The Principal company in Des Moines just hired me to do four giant pieces. From now until July, that’s my focus.
Those are abstracts, not landscapes. Some people, especially artists, say, “How do you move from this photorealistic work to abstract works?” I don’t have any explanation other than, “Do you want to speak one language or multiple languages?” I would like to speak multiple languages in terms of my art. That’s my lexicon. Those are my vocabularies. I don’t shy away from anything. If there’s a material that I want to explore and work with, I just kind of go for it.
MP: You speak multiple languages in real life.
TN: Yes. Vietnamese – and for Vietnamese, there are three different dialects. I speak all three. And French. And English. But English is probably my worst one [laughs].
MP: Why do you paint rural Midwestern landscapes?
TN: I’m attracted to subjects that reach people on emotional levels. Whenever I look at one of these farms, I feel like if you live here, it connects you to a place, or maybe a distant past. It gives you a sense of identity. And there’s something really beautiful about it for me as a Vietnamese who grew up in a war-torn country. It’s very peaceful. Maybe the peacefulness is what draws me in. I don’t know how much of that has to do with my background as a kid who grew up with bomb shelters in the backyard.
MP: What was your first experience with these landscapes?
TN: I had never seen anything like them. Vietnam is very mountainous. Then I was in California for 13 years, first San Francisco, then Fresno for school, and from there I moved to Orange County. That’s where I met my partner. We decided to move here in 2005. Initially, we thought, “Maybe we’ll live here for three or four years, and then go out east.” I always want to live in New York. It’s been 15 years and we’re still here [laughs].
But I remember driving through Nebraska and Iowa. I loved, loved, loved the landscape. I loved the flatness, and the vastness. Iowa and the rolling curves, the rolling hills, all these cornfields were mesmerizing to me. And so I did two paintings back in 2005. I don’t have them anymore. And I was kind of surprised that a lot of artists here don’t really take advantage of the beautiful landscapes.
MP: Maybe because this is our backyard?
TN: Like me, as a Vietnamese, when I go back, I don’t really appreciate my own landscapes back home.
MP: Your paintings are very romantic.
TN: Oh, god, yes! When I go out [into the country] and I see a farm or barns, I always imagine who lives there and what their lives are like. To me, it’s like – can you imagine finding someone you love, and it’s just you and that person out there? To me, that’s the most beautiful, romantic thing ever.
MP: We’ve driven through Iowa several times. There’s an annual jazz festival in Iowa City.
TN: Talking about jazz, I’ll have to show you this. [He pulls out his phone and calls up some pictures.] Chet Baker! I’ve been listening to Chet Baker for forever. Twenty-some years. So I finally did a series of Chet Baker paintings. [Black-and-white, like hyper-realistic B&W photos, they’re fantastic. We don’t ask how big they are.]
Too many different projects! I’m doing abstracts, these Midwest landscapes, Chet Baker, this giant paintings series, and I have so many other projects I want to tackle.
MP: Do you paint on a giant easel?
TN: I have a 140-inches-long table, so I work flat. When a painting is 90% done, I put it up on the wall, step back, go back in and fine-tune it. The abstracts and landscapes are all flat.
MP: Are you ever tempted to make your skies more blue?
TN: No! I love the gray tones so much that it’s very difficult. It took me years to develop landscapes that don’t look traditional. I think it’s the sky that makes them look contemporary.
“Eclogue: New Works by Teo Nguyen” will be at Burnet Fine Art & Advisory in Wayzata through Saturday, May 22. That doesn’t give you a lot of time to see it, for which we apologize, but it’s worth catching if you can. The main show is all landscapes, but you’ll find a couple of his abstracts in the back room.The gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., or by appointment; email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 952-473-8333. COVID-19 protocols call for masks and social distancing.
Look for a major solo show of Nguyen’s work on the Vietnam War at Mia in the fall of 2022. Information will be available on Mia’s website in late summer or early fall.