Butterflies, Landscape, and the Black and White

Artist’s Introduction: On the performance of anger, or, answering the question “Why did you decide to become a visual artist?”

 

Because language fails. It will betray you. In those times, you have no choice but to find a different way to look, to see what is happening around you. You have to find different ways of articulating what is happening to you.

You who are reading this should know my answer is not meant to be a poem. It is not meant to be an essay. Even if this reads like a confession, it is no confession. I am writing to you and you and you and you so I can say what needs to be said. So I can find my way back to the you who is me.

_____

On days when I am not working as a poet and teacher, I try to wake up early. I empty my oversize messenger bag of books and papers and the previous day’s half-eaten lunch. I place the strap over my left shoulder, with the bag firmly secured to my back. I begin to walk. I walk for as long as it takes to fill the bag with stuff: branches, findings from the local thrift stores, choice items left in boxes on sidewalks, and—if I’m lucky—something I’ve never seen before. Once the bag is filled, I return home and empty the contents from the bag, creating mounds of what some might consider junk. I see them as source materials and the beginnings to my art-making process.

I am committed to using these recycled materials as an environmentally conscious artist, but also as one who strives to make art accessible through both my practice and my use of materials. Quite frankly, I get a kick out of forcing these disparate objects to come together, to compromise and accommodate one another while becoming something new, something thoughtful. 

I believe wholeheartedly that this effort is not too far a reach for a metaphor of being a working-class person of color within the space of academia. This attempt is no digression.

_____

I am writing to you the colleague. We are not likely to ever speak or meet, though we walk the same hallways. Perhaps in another life, we could have been friends. We share this proximity of existing on a campus in a building amid the languages and voices of our students, but the academy has made it clear that it is not my place. That I remain an adjunct. That we are not equals in this social construction of academic class. That you are white. That I am not. I am taking the liberty of calling you my colleague. I would rather do this than call you my enemy. You have been the target of my anger. I’ve held you responsible for claiming the job I wanted.

But the truth is, this is not about a job. This is not the first time. This is about life. There are many lives inside this wanting. This teaching. This sharing. This feeding of our students. This is not a job. This is my life. I am writing to you because I want you to know I do not want to hold this anger, that I am doing what I can to not be so angry. I’ve come to know the performance of anger. I want you to know that this is not the performance of anger—this walking in the hallways, this seeing, this knowing—this knowing that we both see.

_____

And to you the reader inside this moment, who could be asking, “What does this have to do with the art?”—to you I say, it has everything to do with the art.

_____

I am also writing this to the you that is me. I am writing to remind you that you, too, must be implicated. That you wanted all this. You wanted this job, a change in title, in status. You wanted this life. A part of you was willing to erase the notion of race, to hide in class. This was always a part of this job.  You wanted to be seen. You wanted to be accepted. Had you been accepted, this story would have been different. You would have found a way to convince yourself you wanted the silence that comes with this job, this life. I am writing you this as a reminder. I’m writing you to say, you wanted to belong in this construction of whiteness. I am writing to ask: What exactly are you asking? What exactly do you want?

_____

I refer to what I do as art-making because I do not paint, draw, or sculpt with a traditional or learned consideration of artistic craft. My craft is founded in the doing. I glue things together. I make things fit. I dip things in wax. I cut. I build. I weave. I think. I fill things up with paint using ketchup bottles. I stare at things in the hope that these things will talk back to me. This is what I do, and it makes me happy. It allows me to lose myself in the process of doing. It also makes me sad, but allows me to find myself in the process of seeing. 

I insist on it being called art at the end of the day.  

_____

The images in this portfolio are taken from several different series. One series, The Expectations of the Prescribed World, features nineteen works that include a total of precisely nine thousand hand-crafted butterflies—an ode to those butterflies killed for Damien Hirst’s In and Out of Love exhibit at the Tate Modern. In response to Hirst’s obscene act I cut out nine thousand butterflies from pages of gay pornography, material that society has deemed obscene. This simple and obsessive act became a meditation I believe to be thoughtful and filled with potential, with possibilities. I am extending this thinking in an ongoing body of work entitled The Body as Landscapes / The Landscape as Bodies. Using the same material of naked white male bodies, I am constructing imagined landscapes in an effort to think through the imprint of man and the history of violence left on the body of this country, this planet. 

Other works include a series titled The Study of White, my continuing exploration of consciousness and race. In these inquiries of materiality and form, I am investigating the fragility and imperfections of white just beneath the constructed surface. Black as a Color Is Absolute is based on the premise of beginning with a black surface as a point of inquiry. This changing of the background color as a starting point represents a shifting of consciousness. With mis-tinted house paints in old ketchup bottles, my process consists of building layers upon layers of color onto the black surface. This act of dripping paint is at once an attempt to control and the documentation of a loss of control.  

That I am speaking of the process and the art in this moment is to speak of a lived experience. All this is to say that the resulting collection of work simultaneously attracts and repulses while intermingling themes of desire, cultural appropriation, and the political body.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Truong Tran Eamon. Images appear courtesy of the artist.

 

Truong Tran (b. 1969) received his MFA from San Francisco State University in 1995 in the field of writing and is the author of numerous volumes of poetry. He is a self-taught visual artist whose work has been exhibited in venues including the California Historical Society, California Institute of Integral Studies, SOMArts Gallery, Telegraph Hill Gallery, and the San Francisco International Art Market Art Fair. He lives in San Francisco and teaches at Mills College.