Portrait of a Contemporary Family by Lien Truong
April 1 - May 14, 2006
Portrait of a Contemporary Family
What is a family? What are our biases towards defining a
family and where do they come from? Drawing from her own experiences with the idea of identity, artist Lien Truong thinks about human interaction, specifically the perception of the self and how the self perceives others. Truong has created a body of paintings that directly communicates these issues in a
manner to which anyone can relate. Lien Truong’s exhibit titled, Portrait of a Contemporary Family includes paintings from her Portrait of a Family series and pieces from her new series, The Contemporary Family. This show, like Truong’s work, explores the perception of identity while allowing the viewer opportunities for interpretation. The dialogue that Truong’s paintings stimulate promotes understanding of various forms of identity, including the cultural and societal influences that mold our perception.
Lien Truong’s identity investigation started during her
undergraduate studies at Humboldt State University. Describing herself as a “hippie girl who wanted to save the world.”, she began in the environmental sciences, viewing them as a career path that would contribute to progressive change. After two and a half years of study in the Natural Resources Department,
Truong recognized that though she loved the sciences, her
calling was in a different field. She took a two-year leave from HSU to find herself and returned as a Studio Art major, with an emphasis in painting. Acting on her desire to remain socially progressive while applying the ethic of scientific neutrality, Troung began to create work that was activist in its intent while descriptive ( as in the eye of the scientist) of specific social
concerns—all informed by a visual aesthetic that satisfied her passion for the painting medium.
Her first cohesive body of work, The War Series (which is not presented in this exhibition), confronted the central issue
of her identity. This series directly relates to the Vietnam War, her family’s suffering there during that period and, subsequently,
their lives as a refugees and then immigrants to the United States. The War Series is comprised of narrative
paintings about the Vietnam War, which often show Vietnamese youth stuck between the world of a child and a state of war.
Making her paintings in an expressionist style, she describes a
melancholic atmosphere through painterly marks, drips,
hazing and a muddied palette, which accentuate the themes of loss of innocence and childhood as a consequence of war. These works are intuitive and free flowing, as Truong allowed the painting and mark making processes to be prominent formal
components in the work. This initial series of painting marked the
beginning of Truong’s disciplined refinement of her painting skills—a work ethic that propelled her into her graduate studies.
While studying for her Master’s of Fine Arts at Mills College in Oakland, California, a new series was conceived as she
considered her impending marriage to her husband, Mark
Soderstrom. During this period she became acutely aware of the prohibitions against people near and dear to her who were forbidden to enter the union of marriage. These were family and friends in dedicated, long-term, same-sex relationships, who desired the equal right of entering into a state-sanctioned union of marriage—the same that Truong was about to enter into.
In a deep empathic response, at the very most personal
level, Truong began to consider the subject of what
constitutes the identity of a family in a new series of paintings,
titled, Portrait of a Family. She began to explore those pictorial
conventions that communicate visually the subject of “family”. Here, she teased out and tested the tensions and contradictions that arise between the conventional, historical and cultural visual
depictions of “family” versus her own encounters with
people who embodied the actual love, commitment, respect and
dependability that constitutes any viable family.
In the paintings, Truong removes signifiers that have their roots in the conventions of traditional European portraiture, which depict status through a system of idealization. Signifiers such as clothing, locale, possessions and positioning of subjects, which all convey an ideal of family as filtered through social status, roles, race, and religious affiliations. To further reinforce her investigation, Truong chose to portray families whose gender, racial and social status were ambiguous. In order to pictorially represent the uncertainty about the status of her subjects, the images of the families depicted in her paintings are stripped of
those conventional signifiers. To make these paintings, Truong brings together disparate individual images of the respective family members, and then recombines them within the frame of the canvas to create a composition. The series is painted in a photo-realistic manner, portraying one family residing within painting’s composition, each family member occupying their own space. Truong places the figures separately from each other, not touching, in order to reinforce the sense of ambiguity, building a unique, yet diffused dialogue with the viewer. Had she painted the work in a looser manner, her work would have been seen for its formal qualities and not its deep seeded political and conceptual intent. While developing this series, content began to take the spotlight in her work; technique however, became critical in executing her concepts.
She exhibited a piece from this series, The Wagner
Family, in two galleries in California; one in San Francisco and
another in Fremont, a middleclass suburb of San Francisco. This
portrait included two women of roughly the same adult age. In Fremont, viewers saw these women as sisters. However, in San Francisco, the audience generally interpreted the same two women as a lesbian couple. Truong surmised that the viewers in Fremont were more comfortable with sisters, not lesbians and vice versa in San Francisco. This anecdote illustrates Truong’s intention—that her painting’s open-ended portrayal of family identity will allow viewers to encounter and evaluate their own biases, stereotypes and prejudices. Encountering Truong’s work, the viewers must inevitably confront personal identity issues as they attempt to decipher the relationship of the paintings’ subjects, questioning their desire for signifiers and their reliance on personal, internalized biases.
Building on the conceptual and stylistic development of the Portrait of a Family series, Truong’s new project,
The Contemporary Family further explores identity
issues and family values. This new series is comprised of
two inter-dependant, sub-bodies of work: Family Sittings and
Family Trees. Similar to her previous series, Truong
again employs ambiguity to stimulate a
social dialogue. However, with these paintings she
changes her conceptual approach to her subjects. Here,
almost alarmingly, Truong has made family portraits of
invisible, featureless people: only portraying those accoutrements with which the various families chose to surround themselves, and thus identify themselves. As with the conventions of traditional European family portraiture, the subjects present themselves in their best attire, surrounded by their processions and the material comforts of their homes, however the skin and hair are missing. These are invisible people, wearing clothes, seated in rooms. The ethnicity, age, religion and perhaps gender, of the family members are left unknown.
In Family Sitting no.2, one invisible person is sitting on another
invisible person’s lap. The smaller of the two people, is seated on another’s lap in a cradled position. Naturally one assumes this must be a child seated on its parent’s lap. Also, this “child” is wearing a dress. One assumes, almost without a second thought, that this person is a girl and that the adult is her mother. As these assumptions surface in the mind of the viewer, the realization that one is participating in making assumptions becomes part of a dialogue between Family Sitting
no. 2 and the viewer.
Complimenting these works are Family Trees—abstract paintings, made of painted squares of wood, which reduce the relationships between each invisible family member from the Family Sittings to a schematic depiction of their skin color. Here Truong is offering us tantalizing clues about the identity of her invisible sitters. The Family Trees are arranged to mimic the genealogical schema of a family, with its implied genetic link between child and parents. But how do we really know if they are in fact genetically related? Truong, however, does not indicate to the viewer which Family Tree coincides with which Family Sitting. The viewer is once again left to his or her own judgment (and attending prejudices) given the available signifiers. These paintings obviously further challenge one’s personal biases.
In her work, Truong attempts to open a dialogue concerning internalized stereotypes surrounding the values, which create a functioning family. What are our family values? What makes a good family? Who decides what family is? When we make assumptions
about identity, we are faced with personal and social questions. How do you see yourself? How do you see others? With whom do you identify? Whom are you identified as? Truong’s
work explores these questions in ways that can challenge and surprise both the viewer and the artist. We can view Lien Truong’s work as an exploration of identity at its very root—the family. The confluence of identity with family issues is the
unifying theme that weaves throughout her work. Her concern is to create an art form that stimulates a social dialogue; an art form created not just for the art world, but for everyday people and about everyday people.
This essay was jointly written and edited by Humboldt State University interns at First Street Gallery: Liz Asbill, Erica Botkin, Peggy Coburn, Kate Mills, Rachelle Perez and Amanda Singleton.
Partial support for this exhibition was made possible by the
generous support of our friends patrons.
Marion Amber Marilyn G. Andrews Sharon Arnot John Ash & Dolores Vellutini Sally Babylon Helen Baden Bob Benson Bette Berg James Bledsoe JoAnne Berke Glenn Berry Thomas Boyer Rosalinda & Alan Brainerd Arlene Broyles Kathrin Burleson Gladys Burritt Donna Calimpong Christine, Mark, & Joseph Carter Dick Cogswell & Ester Saunoras Don Courtemanche D. Crawford Olga Dahl Kit Davenport David Dean Lori Dengler & Thomas Lisle David Bullen Design Mimi Dojka Jean Doran Kathleen Doty Gwen Erikson
Becky Evans Nicholas Frank Dr. John Gambin David Gavrich Ben Fairless Robert Gearheart
Phylis J. Geller Sandi Globus Lori Goodman Nina Groth Elizabeth Hans-McCrone Richard & Nancy Head Todd Healy Denice Helwig Eileen Hemphill-Haley Bill Hole Peter Holbrook Cynthia Hooper & Jesse Wiedel Jerry Hull Sharon Hunter Hildred Jacobsen David Jordan Jeff Jordan Robert Jordan Marla Joy Mick & Tina Kerrigan Gordon T. Leppig David Lindberg Samuel Lundeen John Mahony Noelle & Louis Marak Barbara & Bob Maxon Mary Ann McCulloch Anne F. McGregor Michelle Mary McKeegan Paul McNally Julie McNiel Kathy Moore Olivia Mills Justin Mittman Demetrios & Despina Mitsanas Jim Morrissey Becky & Isaac Mosgofian Mia Mulhern & Russell Gaskell Janet Neebe Burt Nordstrom Odette Normandeau-Bentley Laura Oppitz Jeane Padgett-Wilhelm Andrea & Mark Pedley David Ploss Tsuya & Cliff Pratt Bug Press Janette & Leslie Price Cynthia & Robert Quinsey Stella Rhodes Stephanie & Robin Robin Ann & Rollin Richmond Max Rousselot Tina Rousselot Sheila & Charles Ross
Wendy Rowan Kelly & Neal Sanders Iris Schenke Mel Schueler Mari Simpson Suzanne Simpson & Lew Litsky Amanda Singleton & Evan K. McMillon Ann King Smith & Douglas Smith Dan & Carrol Stafford Nancy Steufert Joan & Angus Stewart Thea Stewart Alexandra Stillman Jack & Barbara Storm Karen Sullivan & John Pound Jim Test Gwen Thoele Kay Thornton-Fitts Duane Torres Nancy & Charles Trujillo Jill Van Houten Eris & Phillip Wagner June Walsh Waste Solutions Group Mary Wells Carrol & Craig West Janet W. Westlund John & Christine White Sally S. Williams Noah Wilson Brian Woida John Woolley Mike & Katy Yanke
Melissa & William Zielinski Anonymous Donors
The production of this exhibition was a joint effort of the artist Lien Truong, First Street Gallery student assistants, Samantha Dory, Joshua Martinez, Jennifer Gordon and Brian Woida, student interns Amanda Singleton,
Kate Mills, Peggy Coburn, Erica Botkin, Liz Asbill, Rachelle Perez, Arcata High School Art Intern Alice Woo, and
First Street Gallery Director Jack Bentley.
Graphic Design by HSU intern, Lauren Macias. All photographs ©2006 Lien Truong.
Special thanks to Southstream Art Services, Arcata, California
Additional program support has been provided by Humboldt State University.
Special thanks are extended to Becky Evans, Nina Groth, Suzanne Simpson, to Teresa Stanley and to the offices of Burt Nordstrom, Vice President for University Advancement.
©2006, First Street Gallery, Humboldt State University, Arcata, California 95521.
All rights reserved