Connecticut-based artist Tammy Nguyen's work spans multiple disciplines. Through paintings, collages, writing and printmaking, she tackles seemingly contradictory and heavy subject matter by intertwining lesser-known stories of imperialism and geopolitical topics with nature and spirituality. 

In her first solo museum exhibit in the U.S.—here in Boston at the Institute of Contemporary Art—she explores the theme of man vs. nature to tell complex historical narratives connecting the philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson's to American colonialism during the Vietnam War. Her show at the ICA displays the four seasons with four central figures: Emerson, Jesus, the Greek goddess of harvest Demeter, and Ngo Dinh Diem, the first elected president of South Vietnam, who was assassinated in 1963.

Tammy Nguyen joined GBH’s All Things Considered host Arun Rath to discuss her work in more detail. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.

Arun Rath: I love your work, and I’m so excited to talk with you about it. Since we are in Boston, and I’m just down the road from Concord, let’s start with Emerson. I always had a soft spot for Emerson because he was really into Hinduism; it’s as simple as that.

Tammy Nguyen: That’s so interesting. I didn’t know that! That’s so cool to learn.

Rath: Yeah, well, I want to talk to you about connecting this transcendentalism with land reform efforts in Vietnam and American colonialism. Talk about all the things that intersect with Emerson for you and this work of art.

Nguyen: I think that the first time I read Emerson’s “Nature,” such as the ideas that are implicit and intrinsic in manifest destiny—the idea of taming nature—I didn’t think of the ethical dilemmas that are embedded inside those visions.

Instead, I was really inspired by the idea of finding God within yourself through work and finding God reflected in the environment around you. I loved this idea.

As I became older, obviously, I became a more complex person, and I became interested in these ideas of colonialism. I became really interested in where those ideas collide with other ideologies, where colonial campaigns kind of collapse into other cultures.

There’s this grappling of morality, and me being a person of Vietnamese descent and part of the diaspora—my parents were Vietnamese boat refugees—there are a lot of histories that are also really traumatic and painful. All of those things are ideas that I wanted to juxtapose and explore together.

Something I really enjoyed doing in my work is taking the threads of thought and history and connecting them, sewing them together with other narratives that may not seem like they belong. But through the process of work and through the process of creating an exhibition, these threads seemed so intimately connected that it offered looking at history in a totally different way.

So, after rereading “Nature,” I started to think, “Is there a way to take these ideas and collapse them with ideas about American expansion vis-a-vis soft power and diplomacy?”

A portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American Transcendentalist poet.
Tammy Nguyen's portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American Transcendentalist poet.
Photo by Izzy Leung. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Lehmann Maupin

Rath: All the things you’re talking about, all the things that are intersecting here, it sounds like it could be really messy. But when you look at your art, it doesn’t look messy. There’s this beautiful sense of form and an organic sense of form, if that makes sense.

Nguyen: I mean, I am a little bit of a maximalist at heart. I like making things extremely complicated. At the same time, I strive for it to be held in one space.

One kind of—I guess you can call it a North Star that I’m always trying to achieve in my artwork is this sense of symphonic space, where there’s everything from the tiniest little detail to looking at subjects from a very grand scale. I want to have that spectrum be filled in as densely as possible.

I try to create clarity through the materials that I use. The paintings, for example, are all using water-based media on panels that have been laminated with paper. I say this as a point of emphasis because working on paper is a very unforgiving process. My decisions are made swiftly.

They’re not necessarily made quickly. They’re made thoughtfully, but there are no take backs. So, in a way, I do need to be pretty clear-eyed about how I navigate finding a resolution for a composition or a narrative.

Rath: You have so many influences coming into play in your work and who you are. What’s your process for deciding which thing to settle on, to pursue in the kind of depth that you do in your work?

Nguyen: That’s such a great question. I think that, in a way, there’s a lot of intuition. In another way, there is also a lot of open-mindedness with what subjects I bring into the studio for that particular exhibition. I’m interested in a whole bunch of ideas that I haven’t yet explored, and I think that when I’m given an opportunity, I tend to go into that arsenal of undeveloped ideas and pick one that might work out for the opportunity, depending on the space, the time and where my life is at, when the show might be opening, and things like that.

Then, as the research grows—there was this librarian once who gave me this beautiful metaphor on how to grow a pearl, like a research pearl. What you would do is go to a certain subject that you’re interested in, read about it, and then go into the footnotes and look up all of those footnotes. Then, from those footnotes, go and look at all of those sources. And then, from those footnotes, keep looking, and so on. In that way, you’re growing your own pearl. You’ve created your own oyster shell.

I think that is very analogous to the way that I conduct research and how I develop characters, subjects and environments in my shows. It’s like one thing leads to another set of references and another set of primary sources, and then those things breathe new paths for me to look into.

And with each of those, I think a lot of it is instinct. I’m looking for ideas that I’m excited about. I’m looking for ideas that I think would make good images. I’m looking for words that I think might translate into good graphics as well. That’s kind of it. There’s no formula. It’s different every time.