If globalization, and the centuries of colonialism that led up to it, had a scrapbook, it might look something like the work of Liên Truong. She collects divergent histories, narratives and tropes, joining them together to form something closer to the truth. Truong was born in Viet Nam and came to the United States at 18 months old when Saigon fell in 1975. Her family settled in California’s Bay area where Truong lived and worked until 2014 when she took a job as a painting professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. As a child, she always grappled with what it meant to be part of the Asian diaspora, and as she grew older, art became the medium through which she explored it.
Truong believes that artists are multidisciplinary by default. She impresses this upon her students and makes it particularly evident in her work. She combs through historic archives and delves into the Western art historical canon, unafraid to bring ideologies such as Manifest Destiny or Abstract Expressionism into her fold. When Truong moved to North Carolina, she found herself drawn to America’s early history more so than she had been in California. Her pride in it as an American was at once at odds with her repulsion to its violent oppression. Duality, paradox, and dichotomy feed her work as much as historical narrative does. Truong’s 2021 exhibition, From the Earth Rise Radiant Beings, at Davidson College (Davidson, NC) functioned as a mini retrospective, with the depth and breadth of her historical source material, as well as a myriad of polarities, fully on view.
Truong’s Translatio Imperii series is a prime example of her archivist’s mind at work. Each painting in the series is black with the outline of a stylized, Lichtenstein-esque brushstroke swiped across the surface. The brushstroke creates a window into an atmospheric landscape, painted in the style of a Hudson River School painter. Instead of a hazy, verdant land, viewers find rising smoke, flames and craters left by bombs. Each piece depicts a location that has been bombed by American military operatives since WWII. The paintings are displayed in Baroque-style frames, painted matte black with plates bearing the names of locations like Viet Nam, Beirut, or Ho Chi Minh Trail, Laos. Truong says the post WWII time period feels significant— perhaps because the middle and far east have been the primary focus of nearly all US war campaigns since.
Landscape and even anthropomorphic abstraction have long been part of Truong’s expression, but figuration hasn’t previously been something she likes to employ when tackling American transnational issues. That all shifted in her most recent series, Earth Rise Radiant Beings, which makes poignant use of the figure. In this series, Truong draws heavily on her own Asian American experience. She collages strips of silk printed with traditional patterns that gently brush against painted figures in silhouette. The works are colorful and cut with Franz Kline-like gestures that distort or confuse the scene. The silhouettes are a creamy yellow-green that calls to mind a chrysalis. Upon close examination, viewers can see that the figures are women communing with one another. Each painting is a portal into another dimension where Asian women are empowered rather than fetishized or forced into submission. The question is are we looking into the past, the future or a non-linear mashup that has always existed all at once?
Although Truong focuses unflinchingly on history’s ugly and oppressive moments, her work is not a surrender to the veritable hellscape world powers have made manifest. Her vibrant color palette helps this cause, but her underlying conviction drives it home. “I think about the real trauma that one experiences through war and displacement but also the incredible love and resilience that happens—that needs to happen, as these things are passed on through generations,” she says. Her oeuvre is certainly a palpable transmission of this exact resiliency to anyone who takes it in.
Liên Truong’s From the Earth Rise Radiant Beings closed at Davidson College Art Gallery in October 2021.