When artist Kenny Nguyen moved to the United States at 19 years old from South Vietnam, he knew no one other than his family, and knew little of the English language. It was a lonely experience, so he turned to the one thing anyone could understand, regardless of cultural background: Art.
“I really felt like an isolation from everything,” Nguyen said. “Art helped me come through all of that. I could use visual images to tell you a story.”
This experience continues to influence Nguyen’s work, including this month’s exhibition, “Interwoven,” at Sozo Gallery. Working primarily with silk and acrylic paint, Nguyen creates abstract works and installments designed to explore the idea of deconstructing, then reconstructing one’s self.
He wants to give viewers a glimpse of his own emotional story, he said, and to challenge them to explore their own process of deconstructing themselves to become something new.
Silk scarves are a key element for Nguyen, who, in South Vietnam, studied at the National University of Art and Architecture and earned a bachelor of fine arts in Fashion Design. He’d always loved art, he said, and fashion design was a lucrative way to incorporate artistic creativity into his everyday life.
While working in fashion after graduation, Nguyen quickly realized how much he loved creating with fabric.
“I learned a lot from that in the way you had to work with the fabric and materials... the way you had to work to change the look of the body,” Nguyen said. “That’s such a big deal for me, even now in my work. It’s obviously abstract, but you can see the imprint of the body, especially with the sculpture work. I imagine the canvas is a body, and you are wrapping the fabric on the canvas and painting it on. So it has more of a sculpture quality to it.”
After moving to the United States, though he kept painting, Nguyen took a break for a few years and spent time learning English. He returned to school, to UNC Charlotte, and earned a BFA in Painting.
The years-long cultural adjustment was a difficult one, and he felt as if he had to lose a bit of his Vietnamese heritage.
“I think every time you are learning a language, you have to learn to forget your own language. That’s pretty much what I did. I just had a feeling I had to reconstruct, from things that have been deconstructed.”
This is Nguyen’s second solo show at Sozo, and continues through Feb. 8 at the gallery, at 214 N. Tryon St. Nguyen will also teach a silk painting workshop Jan. 26.
Nguyen will fly to Vermont in April for a residency at the Vermont Studio Center, but said he is unsure of what he’ll work on just yet. He plans to use the time to challenge himself.
“I think (art) is such a beautiful way to communicate with people,” Nguyen said. “It’s kind of crossing over this boundary. I think the biggest issue of me being an immigrant is the language. This is just a beautiful way of communication.”