Truong Tran is best known for his five books of poetry: the book of perceptions (1999), placing the accents (1999), dust and conscience (2002), within the margin (2004), and four letter words (2008). He is also a creative writing teacher at San Francisco State University and Mill’s College. Many other people know him for generously opening his home to an ongoing poetry reading series, held in the narrow front room of his Ashbury Street victorian, which has been avidly attended for several years. But on February 5, 2010, many will discover what only a handful have known about Truong Tran: he is also a visual artist.
“I was a collector long before I was an artist,” Tran admits, surrounded on all sides by both finished pieces and works in progress. Every room of his home has been taken over by the materials of his work: Plexiglas sheets in primary colors, half-assembled boxes of aluminum and brushed steel, vintage magazines, spools of industrial thread, hundreds of glass vials or plastic rings or marble-sized wooden balls or, on his kitchen table: a freshly torn-open bubble mailer full of hundreds of hypodermic syringes.
“Somewhere in the creative process I realized it’s not about me looking for treasures and re-framing treasures, it’s about looking for what we’ve discarded from our consciousness in society and somehow reinventing what has been discarded or has been deemed irrelevant. So it’s a whole new rendering of the familiar.”
One of Tran’s largest finished pieces, tentatively called nine hundred stars, is a square steel 5 by 5 foot frame. Inside: rows and rows of thin red circles enclosing a glossy, delicate piece of paper, folded to look like a starfish or a flower. The initial effect is like looking through a microscope at some fragment of man-made fiber: the repeating, seemingly unnaturally perfect pattern we have come to make mentally synonymous with the synthetic. However, on closer inspection: the “patterns” on these magazine fragments reveal smooth human skin, the conjunction of bodies touching, or geographical curves which resolve into sudden clarity: a shoulder, a penis, the back of a knee—an unexpected organic image, hidden within what seems starkly inorganic. Other details reveal the deliberate tension Tran cultivates between perfection and flaw: each of the bright red circles is the wax-dipped rim of a protein scoop—the kind that come pre-packaged in a can of protein powder for making shakes. The rim of red wax reveals the flaws, the uneven edges, and the individuality of each supposedly “identical” surface.
Another of Tran’s large pieces is a floor-to-ceiling frame containing a flock of wildly colored butterflies, rising in explosive motion from the hands of the silhouette of a little boy. The overall effect is stunning, disconcertingly in motion. Upon closer inspection, the butterflies– symbols of light and freedom and fragility—are revealed to be cut from pornographic magazines. Objectified male forms compose the colors and shapes that give the butterflies buoyancy and beauty.
“I don’t set out to make political art,” Tran explains, “I set out to make things that are interesting… and later I find that the political finds its way in.”
Another of Tran’s more politically-charged pieces is called invisible city. It is a large, horizontal, landscape built inside a light box. When the light is off, a repeating pattern composed of multicolored golf tees and thread creates an abstract pattern. When the light is activated, via a clapper, a white paper cutout of a city skyline is revealed: glued to the back of each building are translucent pornographic images. Tran clicks the light on and off. “When the light goes on, the invisible city emerges.”
Tran’s latest book, four letter words, (2008), also had a recurring theme centering on pornography:
“you’re always looking at porn.
no… I’m looking for porn.”
Why is pornography central to Tran’s work? “In my writing I use pornography as a metaphor for the things that society has constructed and deemed obscene, when in fact the real obscenities of our world are hidden behind a veil. The decision to use it in the visual art was more organic: I had a friend who was clearing out his garage and gave me all his pornography- that was my first experience with it. He said he was clearing out his life so he could move on. When I found out he had passed away I wanted to pay tribute to him, so the first piece in the show is a piece called the quilt, which I wove out of old calendars, and this old pornography he had left to me… I made him a blanket.”
the quilt is as tall as a person, and reveals how deeply color is associated with season: the ice blues of winter, the ochre, rust and deep greens of fall. Idyllic scenes of mountain lakes or golden wheat fields or conflagrations of red maple leaves are stuttered and offset with the lithe, lazy, contrived poses of 70’s pornographic icons. The result is a mesh that the eye cannot make static. Neither the whole form of the men or of the nature scenes is visually extricable from the other, yet it’s instantly clear that both are there.
“I don’t want people to look at the art and say, oh this is a really beautiful piece that could go really well over our couch. So I insert things like pornography, or things that force a person to think about it and arrive at that fork in the road where they say, can this or can this not be art?” Tran does not want the viewer to be able to get away with confusing art with decoration, “for art to exist it has to have that moment where a person has to negotiate their relationship with the work—they can’t just be told to hang up a Thomas Kinkade.”
Another major element of Tran’s pieces is color: he makes extensive use of bright, monochromatic tones. His response: “I am trying to hide what I think are very somber themes in my art. The color is a surface, a forced surface that is creating this splash that sends the initial impulse of happy.” Like Morrissey, a musician who often pairs bitingly depressed lyrics with bouncing melodies in major keys, Tran offsets the confrontative and graver themes buried in his work by rendering them in affirmative, uncomplicated, industrial reds, blues, and yellows. The combined effect is simultaneously pleasing and unsettling: his pieces have the effect of an inverted Rorschach test. Rather than starting with an amorphous image and looking for hints of the familiar within it, Tran’s work presents an initial surface that seems perfectly benign in its commonality: what is more common and non-evocative than a little piece of plastic you would use once and then throw away without a second thought? Yet the illusion of ordered uniformity is just that: an illusion, and one created by using elements that only seem identical, or really are not what they seem at all.
Tran is “obsessed with uniformity and how things fit in the world. Unlike most artists, who make a piece of art and then consider the frame for it, I do the opposite: I have a frame, I have a structure, and I make the art fit into the structure. It began as a practice out of economics, but it’s become a way of making art for me- a conscious development of the work.” The idea of containers, what can be contained, the illusion of containment, is central to the pieces in this show: “an extension of the idea of containers is the latent meaning we unknowingly attach to objects.”
Illustrative of this idea is a piece in progress, A ladder to…, which involves mounting hundreds of hypodermic syringes in a kind of latticework or stairway which will be framed in Plexiglas and illuminated. The needles, wrapped individually in sterile packaging, are aesthetically pleasing objects: opalescent plastic with pale blue tips safely enclosing a sharpened steel needle: a remarkably elegant medical tool. “People are going to bring their luggage to this,” Tran says. “This is a tool that is so weighted. I think that is what I am trying to work with here, this idea that we live in a society that signifies through our identification of objects: myself being an object. My face, my ethnicity, my body is objectified in some ways.” The only difference between how one person sees a syringe versus how another sees it is in the latent connotation each attaches. Tran’s aim is to illuminate objects, so that each person who sees the art also has the opportunity to see the latent meaning they, personally, have attached.
A more humorous piece in the next room is a box backed in translucent red and filled with a controlled chaos of plastic rings of varying diameters. “Leftover parts from penis pumps,” Tran explains.
Among recurring ideas in Truong Tran’s poetry is the way language is harnessed and contained, either by its line breaks, spacing, metaphorical ambiguity, or political double-edgedness. Tran’s visual art amplifies this theme into physical space, where it immediately detonates into a shower of disturbing beauty—like confetti that, as it falls, resolves itself into embers—evidence of a trauma and a thing of resonance at the same time. The physical experience of looking at Tran’s work is like throwing a mental switch: pattern gives way to distinct individual content, and then phases back to pattern again. The familiar is found to be composed of the unexpected. The tame goes running under the couch and commences to growling. Tran’s work shines a light on our mental habit of mistaking the abstract for the actual: a person for his race, an object for one of its uses, physical uniformity for perfection, the cast-off for the worthless.
the lost and found | Solo Exhibition | Truong Tran
Kearny Street Workshop & Mina Dresden Gallery Present
the lost and found | Solo Exhibition | Truong Tran
February 5 – 26, 2010
Opening Reception February 5, 7pm – 9pm
312 Valencia St. San Francisco, CA 94103 (415) 863-8312
reviewed by LJ Moore editor.moore(at)gmail.com