artist / participant

press release

In the 1972 science fiction film Solaris, the renowned Russian cinematographer Andrei Tarkovsky posited a world in which modern understanding of the nature of memory, time, and recognition are irrevocably altered. This tour-de-force exploration into the state of the human soul—of humanity’s struggle between spiritual and moral entropy and the hope of attaining a moral ideal—has been a creative inspiration to a number of contemporary artists. For Tam Van Tran, Tarkovsky’s notion of what Tran calls “karmic hallucinations” is an apt metaphor for understanding Tran’s own creative explorations.

Tran’s work is driven by his interest in exploring the intersection between abstract imagery and psychological content, between organic and man-made materials. For the past six years, his work has been centered in these seemingly disparate yet intellectually related references, which underscore his broad influences, and demonstrate where he finds his inspiration. Since 1987, Tran has explored natural materials in his work, using such unlikely resources as agar-agar (a seaweed product sometimes used in science experiments), Pepto-Bismol, eggshells, banana leaves, milk, and oil. He was, and remains, as he says, “intensely interested in the transitory nature of all materials. My paintings became a site or location for trying to capture the invisible without my having to make my hand visible.” In the early 2000s, he moved to acrylics, which he thinks of as “just another natural material.” But whether made from traditional paint or non-conventional media, Tran’s artwork remains visually beautiful and psychologically edgy, seductive and accessible on the one hand, and mysteriously elusive on the other.

The word”psychonaut” was coined by Robert Thurman, a renowned scholar and professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University. “Psychonaut” refers to a systematic investigation of outer and inner phenomena, what Thurman describes as an “inner revolution" that individuals and societies successfully negotiate when they achieve enlightenment. Recognizing that Tran’s interests span a broad spectrum from art history to ancient religion, it is apt that Tran captured this term for his first exhibition in Texas, and the first time so many paintings and works on paper from the past six years have been seen in concert. In bringing together these aspects of his creative approach to abstraction, we can trace the links that flow through Tran’s studio process and his mode of thinking.

Tran’s studies in painting and filmmaking—especially animation—have significantly inflected his work. Paintings such as Heavy Metal from Greenland (2001) and Massive Solitude (2002) present themselves as hybrids that oscillate between wild sci-fi imaginings of space and aerial views of earth’s landscape, delicately and almost obsessively rendered through hand-painted, pixilated grids. These grids helped the artist create an optical effect influenced by aerial views of the landscape, especially patterns created by humans in an attempt to control nature. Imagine the topological and diagrammatic circles, squares, and rectangles we sometimes see when flying over cultivated fields in the mid-West. In 2000, Tran began on a series collectively entitled Beetle Manifesto, large-scale works constructed of punched, crunched, stapled, and woven paper brushed with green pigment made from chlorophyll and spirulina, a form of algae found in ponds and lakes. In the Beetle Manifestos Tran continued to symbolically describe the land as seen from above. There is a visual parallel between these almost three-dimensional reliefs and the more conventional acrylic paintings, with the punch holes in the Beetle Manifestos functioning in a way similar to the grids—guidelines that build up a layered effect in each piece. “The punch holes negate the drawing, “he has said. “They eat away the image and reveal the white paper underneath. The three-dimensional quality of the Beetle Manifestos also devours space and intrudes into the architecture of a room. Lines are the architectural support that creates the final paintings.”

His newest works on paper, pigmented with beet juice and whirling with free-flowing gestures made using brushes, sponges, and unconventional tools such as bottlecaps, continue this theme in two dimensions. Monumentally scaled, they are luscious meditations on the variety of forms comprising the natural world. Works like Peanut Butter Wolf are clearly based on landscape—ground and sky. However, his diagrammatic side is again revealed in both When liver came and then thoughts of cities appeared and In the beginning there was borscht and then came the thought of liver. “When I painted these,” he notes, “I was thinking of them as diagrams of cities. With landscape you are thinking about the space, light, and illusion. In diagrams you are not concerned with the illusion; instead you are just getting the point across, as in writing. When you write, you don’t think about the space behind the words.” There is another, more subtle tie between the Beetle Manifesto constructions and the new beet juice pictures. Both continue Tran’s interest in manipulating natural materials in the service of art, and both use food material and so reference nature directly. But the story of how the beet paintings came about illuminates how seemingly random a major creative decision might come about. “A couple of summers ago,” Tran recounts, “I did a traditional one-hundred-day individual silent retreat and grew beets, intending to use them in my work. Growing my own material was another way to connect what I was painting and drawing with my interest in meditation.”

Combining a quest for aesthetic expression and spiritual growth is a unique underpinning of Trans work. When I asked him if he felt that a work of art could be transcendent, his response perfectly sums up his approach to artistic accomplishment. He said, “A true transcendent experience is one you don’t grasp onto. Once you grasp onto the experience, you have already separated yourself from it. For this reason I don’t think I’ve experienced transcendence because I always retrace my experience and elaborate on it in my mind. Political art also can liberate if it can help us transcend social injustice, so I don’t think transcendence is necessarily the domain of spiritual or religious experience. Transcendence is a state that shatters limits.”

Tam Van Tran: Psychonaut has been made possible, in part, by generous contributions from the Visionary Initiatives Fund: Vicky and Don Eastveld, Miranda and Dan Wainberg; and from Charles Butt. Additional support was provided by Kathy and Richard S. Fuld, Jr.; Anthony Meier Fine Arts; Cohan and Leslie, New York; Shannon, Martin, Finkelstein & Alvarado, P.C.; and Susan K. Kutzner & James J. Ferguson, III.

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Tam Van Tran