Artist: Tony Nguyen
Media: Mixed media, primarily metal
Gallery: Dr. Maxine Merlino
About the Artist
For all of the artist conversations I have done, never have I had so much fun as with this one. Perhaps “fun” isn’t the most eloquent of words, but it fits the feeling I had from this exhibit so well I have to keep it. The overall emotion may come instinctively to me, but the exhibit itself is far less straightforward. I should begin by describing the creator himself: Tony Nguyen. His personality is so like the feeling from his exhibit that one could almost see him as one of the work of art. He draws anyone he talks to in instantly, fascinating them with stories that he has told many times, but still has the same unbridled enthusiasm for. But if you don’t get to hear him speak, you would at least be drawn in by his choice in clothing. Tony clearly has fun choosing his outfits. He wears a vest over a blue checkered shirt rolled to the elbow with a black hat he periodically removes as he talks. He has a leather cuff bracelet on one wrist, and a thick silver ring he made himself on the other. But as I first mentioned, his most notable feature is his talent with conversation. He is always willing to tell a story about his own life, or the real or imaginary story his metal creations are based on. Tony is close to his family, and so he often shares stories he has heard from them, and how they have shaped who he is. What he considers his greatest work, a necklace based on a bridge, was based on one of the more powerful stories he heard from his mother. I will go more in depth into this story later. Tony’s skill with metal may have even come from his father, whom he described as a handyman. He is the family member who can always fix anything. Tony isn’t a carbon-copy of any one family member, however. He says he is a bit of a black sheep. He is currently enrolled at CSULB in the Metal-smith program as an undergraduate, and he is the only member of his family to go into an art related field. He hopes to use his degree to go into prop making, creating equipment for movies and TV shows.On the side he could make jewelry as well, like the rings he wears himself. Even if his goals are different from anything his family has ever attempted, they still support him. And Tony hopes to stay close to them throughout his life. His fascinating works have certainly been worthy of their praise now that they see the extant of his talents.
Tony’s metal sculptures all have the element of child-like playfulness about them, but each collection of works is unique in style and execution. One group of little sculptures that Tony made as different representations of himself is most different. The figures are stubby and seem almost crudely made, though purposefully so. The lines are organic and the pieces soft-looking, as if they are made of clay, though really they are made of aluminum. The black finish is almost hastily applied to fill the cracks and make them stand out, further adding to the clumsy feeling of this collection. Another collection consists of an armored glove, a crown, and a leather and metal arm guard. These pieces are much more ordered. The metal pieces are all the exact size they need to be in order to fit with the next piece. There is a feeling of great precision in this collection. The finish on the metals gives them a smooth, flowing quality. There is a bit of a clash between the elegance of the design on the arm guard with the sturdy leather beneath it. Another piece with a definite function was a piece of snake jewelry. It could be worn as either a necklace or bracelet. The braiding of the metal on the body took six weeks to complete, but the final product makes the production look effortless. The snakes appear to have scales weaved out of silver. The lack of finish make the final work gleam in the studio lights. Other pieces didn’t have such defined uses, however. One was a study of the pattern a pill-bug would make splashing on its back into water. This was more of a sculpture to be enjoyed. The pounded metal was left rough and the edges wavy to make the piece mimic rippling water. There were more pieces, but they would essentially be described like one of the pieces above, so to save space I won’t specifically describe the formal qualities of every piece, since I would be saying the same thing.
The name of Tony’s exhibition is Neotany. An interesting title and a word that would probably be used more to describe subjects in a biology class than in an art gallery. The word is used to describe animals that retain juvenile characteristics into their adult forms. For instance, salamanders usually have gills as hatch-lings, but lose them as they reach sexual maturity. An Axolotl would be considered a neotenous species since it retains its gills throughout its adult life. In Tony’s exhibition, the word takes on more than just a physical meaning. He struggled for a long time with finding a theme for his work. It spanned such diverse topics and ideas he just couldn’t describe them all with one title. He might not have come up with anything had it not been for a fortuitous meeting with a well known metal-smith/jeweler. Sometimes one needs fresh eyes for an old problem, and this is exactly what Tony needed and got. His friend saw the connection immediately, and thankfully he had the vocabulary to find the word Neotany. This is the idea Tony’s exhibit, and ultimately Tony himself reflects.He has grown and matured, but has still kept the essence of childhood with him. He kept his spontaneity, his curiosity and sense of wonder. He knows how to have fun and he seeks to show his playfulness in his work. His collection of sculptures of himself is the first set that comes to mind when I think of Tony’s child-like side. He originally wanted to make toys, not so much art. His sculptures were his first attempts to make his own toys, these ones based off different versions of himself. But his creations have a serious side. He said each sculpture is a different version of himself that he projects on the world. All but one sculpture, a clear plastic one hidden behind a bust with a necklace. Tony said that this sculpture represents the part of himself he will never share with the world. He says that no person can be “100%” with anyone. There will always be something or some part of you that no one will know about; a self only you can know. A few more works were based somewhat on toys. One was a little planter that looks a bit like Tiki mask crossed with a robot with pose able arms and legs. Or the first object in the exhibit, a gumball dispensing machine with bright red and gold colors. Even the crown and armor he created could be used in play. Not all of the metal sculptures are only meant for play, though. Many of Tony’s works are based off of stories he heard in his youth or that are part of his past. The crown he tooled was based on a story of a monkey king who brought Buddhism to India. Many of his works are based off of stories. One in particular he will tell to every person who asks; the story behind the necklace of bridges. Before Tony’s birth his mother found herself in the middle of the Vietnam war. As she ran to escape the bombs falling behind her and her baby cousins on her back, she came to a bridge. It was either cross or be trapped behind enemy lines. Tony’s mother made the choice to cross the bridge and just as she reached the other side a bomb flew down and destroyed the bridge. She made her journey safely to america after, but if she had not crossed that fateful bridge, she most likely would have been killed. For Tony this story was immensely powerful, and he set to work making a piece to do it justice. His necklace consists of five bridges, the largest is for his parents and the four smaller ones are for himself and his brothers. Beneath each bridge are two footsteps made of metal that Tony said actually have the patterns from his parents’ and brothers’ toes. Tony made a bridge for each family member because he believes at each point in our lives we will be required to make a difficult decision, to cross some bridge that we don’t know is safe. Tony said he himself is crossing his bridge, working hard to make a career out of art, and he believes he is doing so successfully. If his works aren’t based off of stories, then Tony said they are meant for the audience to create their own based on what they see. The connections his works have to toys or stories help nearly all of Tony’s works bring back the forgotten experience of childhood. Tony wanted all to be reintroduced to the parts of them they once were more familiar with as a child. Their inquisitive and unassuming natures that have been hidden as they matured. Tony stated that we are not entirely at fault for losing these traits, since it is necessary as one reaches adulthood. But the end goal of his work, is simple. To rekindle the childhood spirit we once all had. Childhood may be behind us, but the qualities we once possessed may give us more joy than we knew before.
Synthesis/ My Experience
My English teacher in high school one asked a question that, for one reason or another, I haven’t forgotten to this day. She asked us to tell her the difference between the words “childish” and “child-like”. The denotative meaning of both is the same, to act after the manner of a child. But the connotation is different. Childishness implies the negative aspects of childhood: immaturity, stubbornness and the like. “Child-like” has a much different feeling. It conjures up the traits of a child many would like to emulate: sweetness, innocence, and curiosity. This is what I saw in Tony’s exhibit and in Tony himself. That innate desire so many have lost. The desire to play, to have fun with the world and everything in it. I was drawn to this exhibit because I never lost that joy. I want to say I went into the biology program because of some kind of intellect or intrinsic ability. But I didn’t. I joined for one very simple, very child-like reason. I joined because I love it. Nothing really more. I’m quite good mastering the subject, I have learned, but that isn’t why I love it. I have a passion for the subject because it feeds my curiosity. There is always something new to be learned, and something amazing just waiting to be uncovered. And like Tony I want to share this feeling with others. Tony took his passion and talent with metals, and created a gallery with a hope for going into prop making, where he will be able to share his works with viewers around the world. I too want to share my joy in biology, but I hope to become a teacher. We have to mature for a reason. With maturity comes many strengths. But perhaps we can all be like the neotenous Axolotl salamander, and retain some of our childhood traits. Because it may do us well to retain some of that innocence and curiosity we once knew so well.