‘Letter to My Younger Self’; in conversation with KV Duong

'Man vs Man' (left) and '20 Years Later' by KV Duong
Acrylic and concrete on carbon fibre reinforced polymer (FRP). 2019
© KV Duong
We originally met KV Duong through his consecutive participations in Chrom-Art’s annual TRIBE16 and TRIBE17 International Art Festivals, where his work shone and attracted a lot of interest from the very beginning.

KV has since grown through over a dozen further group exhibitions, art commissions and most recently a solo exhibition ‘Identity’ at the Streatham Space Project in London last October. There, he did a live body painting performance in front of a fascinated audience during the opening night. KV’s art is rich, diverse, delicate, complex, moves across several media techniques and reflects his many cultural influences to tell fascinating stories.

His unique style delivers elaborate and multi-faceted pieces. His language immerses the viewer in an introspective trip, where guided by the goalposts he deliberately leaves in his artworks, the doors of the subconscious open.

The spectators are initially consumed by a rich sensory experience and then mentally transported to contemplate their own stories of the artwork.

“When the body is covered with paint, the raw emotions and thoughts during that specific instance can manifest themselves on the canvas naturally” – KV Duong

 

The title of your exhibition is ‘Letter to My Younger Self’. What is the significance of this piece and why have you chosen this as your exhibition name?

‘Letter to My Younger Self’ is about the wiser version of myself, telling the once uncomfortable and suppressed version that everything will be okay. At age 7, my family and I emigrated from Vietnam to Canada. At age 12, I realised my sexuality. At age 28, I finally had the courage to come out. If art is also about the process, then this is my process of healing with time.

This piece is about my personal life experience, but the topics about the human condition and trying to find oneself is a universal one. This exhibition is about the highs and lows of our life experiences, what we have learned and how we can move forward. The most flattering response I can get from the audience is when they tell me that my art has connected with them.

Materially, the media of this painting are mulberry paper and ink (which traditional Asian calligraphers use) merged with acrylic on canvas (to reflect my Western upbringing). There are steel nails embedded behind layers of mulberry paper; the organic nature of steel nails reacts chemically with water and air to produce rust and discolouration.

‘Letter to my younger self’ by KV Duong
Acrylic, ink and rusted nails on mulberry paper and canvas. 2018

Throughout your career you have explored several media, even using your own body, does this help the audience to understand your artwork in a more holistic way?

I keep an open mind and do not limit myself to a specific medium; with more practice and experience, I continue to develop and expand my range. I start a new piece with a theme and story in mind, and however these manifest themselves in our physical world, I let the creative process take its natural flow. Intrinsically, the materiality of the media and their history are important in my practice.

For the Japanese Gutai artists, ‘art does not change the material; it brings it to life… If one leaves the material as it is, presenting it just as material, then it starts to tell us something and speaks with a mighty voice.’ The more I continue to experiment with different materials, the more I understand their intrinsic properties and try my best to merge my creativity with their raw characteristics. Works on packaging cardboard are a tribute to my parents’ factory work in Canada; works on carbon fibre polymer are reflective of my structural engineering background; works on mulberry paper and ink are inspired by the mediums used by the Asian calligraphy masters; works on wooden pallet are representative of the transient nature of both the pallet and the migrants portrayed.

The live body painting performances came quite naturally, to my surprise. When the body is covered with paint, the raw emotions and thoughts during that specific instance can manifest themselves on the canvas naturally. The paint is not inhibited by the brush or another external tool; in this case, the body (person) and the material are working as one.

‘Rise 2’ by KV Duong
Acrylic and pumice stone on packaging cardboard. 2018

 

’20 Years Later’ (close up) by KV Duong
Acrylic and concrete on carbon fibre reinforced polymer (FRP). 2019

Your artwork is full of rich abstract landscapes, at times mixed with figurative elements. Can you tell us about the mix of both styles in your paintings and their meaning?

Howard Hodgkin is a British abstract artist who actually refers to himself as a figurative artist who portrays his life experiences through abstraction. This is because he felt when a portrait or scene is painted explicitly, that only that specific expression is conveyed. Whereas through the ambiguity and openness of abstract art, the audience can interpret their own experiences more freely.

In the same manner, I feel my art is slowly transitioning into pure abstraction for the same reasons as Hodgkin but I’m not quite fully ready to give up the representation elements yet. But I veer towards abstraction because it allows me the freedom to express and paint gesturally without the need or pressure to produce a representational image.

In recent works, I have incorporated Chinese oracle characters scattered throughout the landscapes. The Chinese oracle characters are the source images that develop into the modern Chinese words; they are also roots to the Japanese and Korean languages. When these figures are scattered within the body of the paintings, they take on new context and interpretation.

Chinese Oracle Characters

Your engineering background seems also present in your work, perhaps resembling the richness of materials, but also as structural elements like in your Family Pillar series. How did the idea of this series come about?

I trained and work as a Structural Engineer for the past 19 years so this experience has influenced the way I view and respond to the world, specifically how I understand and use materials. As previously touched on, the physicality of the material is very important in my art – its tactile nature, texture as well as its inherent functions. For my engineering masters research thesis, I built a 4x4m reinforced concrete frame, tested it in seismic simulation and repaired it with carbon fibre polymer. It’s interesting how this very physical experience has found its way into my artistic practice more than a decade later.

The aesthetic inspiration behind the Family Pillar series is the Korean artist Yun Hyong Keun. When I encountered his work last autumn at the Simon Lee Gallery in London, I was mesmerised by his aesthetics. The smaller pieces in this series of work are a homage to his work; I have used packaging cardboard and my own life narratives. The Chinese poem inscribed in the large painting is titled ‘Looking At The Moon And Thinking Of One Far Away’, the essence of this poem is about missing one’s family or lover at a full-moon night, for if I’m starring at the same moon at the same time as them, then we are together in thought.

We love your new mobile sculpture and pendant works on carbon fibre. Do you think this will be a new direction in your creative process?

It definitely is! Carbon fibre reinforced polymer (FRP) is a material well known in the structural engineering industry where deficient concrete and/ or steel structures are wrapped with FRP to enhance their strength. To my knowledge, it has not been widely used in the fine art world.

FRP is a complex material. The raw carbon weave behaves like a loose fabric so is difficult to hold shape (it is also itchy to the bare skin), but when combined with epoxy resin, the transformed polymer holds form and strength. Epoxy resin is a hazardous substance and is difficult to manipulate and handle. The finished surface of the cured FRP is hard like plastic so paint or drawing material do not adhere easily. But with great complexity also comes great potential. I’m still experimenting and figuring out this material; future works using FRP will encompass a more sculptural format.

The title ‘Man vs Man’ is a social commentary of what it means to be a man, masculinity versus femininity in the gay world and what it means to be masculine in the straight world. The shapes represent the male silhouette, in our various shapes and sizes, dancing around each other and in balance on the mobile.

‘Man vs Man’ (Mobile) by KV Duong
Acrylic on concrete and fibre reinforced polymer (FRP), aluminium angles, steel rings and nylon strings. 2019

 

“Letter to my Younger Self”
A Solo Exhibition by KV Duong
28th February to 8th April 2019
RB12 Design Space – 6 King John Court, Shoreditch, London EC2A 3AZ
Opens Mon to Sat 10am to 6pm

 

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