Vancouver Mural Festival: Michelle Nguyen finds feminist approach to traditional painting

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      For Vancouver-based artist Michelle Nguyen, the paintings she creates are all about the personal reaction they evoke in the observer.

      The 25-year-old—who was born in Toronto—uses oil pastels to conjure a world where humans interact with each other within the space they occupy together. These eerie yet beautifully cluttered creations are often inspired by mythology, art history, and literature.

      “I love the ability to craft a space and characters in which people can create a story of their own,” Nguyen tells the Straight over the phone. “I’m also interested in finding ways to foster empathy through my work. I just want people to realize that they’re occupying a space with other people. They can consider how other people occupy the space. It’s something I think we need in our current political climate.”

      Nguyen studied environmental design at UBC, and received her undergraduate degree in 2016. She has most recently shown her work at the Bau-Xi Gallery in Vancouver, and will soon leave for a six-week artist residency in France.

      Nguyen’s paintings are often scattered with figures of nude women, animals, plants, and domestic scenes. While they evoke a sense of traditional oil-painting practice, Nguyen approaches the female form in a more feminist and modern way. According to Nguyen, European painting has a long history of misogyny. Painting has traditionally been directed toward privileged men in particular. Nguyen was not interested in painting the female form until she read the work of art critic and painter John Berger, who said that in historic oil paintings, the female nude was never the protagonist.

      “The painting is always the viewer, and the viewer is always presumably a male viewer,” says Nguyen. “Berger talks about how men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at…thus she turns herself into an object, a vision. So I think about that all the time. As a woman, the way you view yourself is through the lens of a man.”

      These theories and histories have strongly influenced Nguyen’s work. But in the end, the viewers’ experience with the art is all their own.

      For the upcoming Vancouver Mural Festival, Nguyen will be creating a custom, collagelike painting. This will be her first mural. Nguyen loves creating art that is hands-on physical, and is looking forward to experiencing that kind of immersion with the mural.

      Nguyen has never done a painting on such a large scale, and is looking forward to the physicality of the mural project.

      “It’s very nice to physically engage your body into making one thing. And that’s why I wanted to do this mural,” she says. “Since it’s so big, I’m engaging my whole body into making this piece.”