Photograph of Thuy-Van Vu, art by Thuy-Van Vu/photo illustration by Matt Ortile.
In the midst of considering the reopening of schools during a pandemic, Thuy-Van Vu’s gorgeous 2014 paintings of empty classrooms have an eerie resonance. The spaces she portrays are vast and full of potential, and also of a great, yawning absence. Where are the children? Their teachers? The chairs are piled awkwardly on top of the desks, everything pushed together, as if those who left were in a rush. There’s a sense that these desks and chairs have been lingering and might never be used again.
When I talk to Vu about her thoughts about her classrooms, it’s nine p.m. in Plattsburgh, New York, where I live, and six p.m. in Seattle, where she has balanced work and art-making for almost two decades. We’ve known each other for about half my life, but haven’t seen each other in six years. Her paintings do to me what the best art always does: fill me with joy and awe, inspire me to do better work myself, and make me want to live with them—in my house and in my mind. Her work tends toward photorealism with an element of abstraction: The masterfully rendered object on the canvas is not necessarily the painting’s subject. Instead, the subject is the story behind the object, as well as what happens when you, the viewer, look at the object closely. The story changes the longer you look, and even when you turn away from the canvas, a haunting afterimage lingers—like a memory of a bittersweet encounter, or of the first book that made you cry. Classroom (Former PS) by Thuy-Van Vu “I was thinking about an early place where you’re unsure of yourself,” she tells me about her classroom paintings, “and about that space being very quiet, and being afraid to speak.” For Vu, the classroom was a space in which she felt particularly awkward—fearful of authority and uncomfortable defending her ideas. As Vu and I talk late at night, my eight-year-old is in bed, and her eleven-year-old is chatting quietly in the background. Neither of our children has set foot in a classroom since March. Storage (Former PS) by Thuy-Van Vu.
She grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, one of four daughters of Vietnamese refugees. Her father, a former pilot in the South Vietnam Airforce, enforced a strict expectation of deference to authority at home. “I had a complicated upbringing. My father was controlling and often unpredictably angry. He probably had PTSD,” she says. “I could get in trouble for having the wrong expression on my face. I knew other Vietnamese kids whose fathers—also former pilots—had similar temper issues, so I didn’t feel uniquely victimized. And as I got older, I also saw my parents as victims in their own right.
“But I couldn’t wait to leave Phoenix. My parents worked hard to provide for us, but there was a lot of unhappiness. Art gave me something to do and allowed me to find some joy and satisfaction in that environment.” When Vu left for college, she did not feel prepared for the critiques she encountered in art classes, which demanded a bewildering combination of assertiveness, deference, and awareness of the art world as a kind of economic space apart from one’s emerging artistic interests. While Vu had many supportive professors, she recalls more negative experiences, too: the woman professor who suggested she uptalk more, to placate a male professor. The professor who asked her to discuss why she had appropriated news images when she was, in reality, painting from photographs of her own family. The professor who asked her to explain “socialist realism” to him. (She didn’t know what socialist realism was; she was simply painting portraits of people in Vietnam.) Much later, while attending the College Arts Association Conference—the annual conference for visual arts professionals in academia—with several classmates, one of her professors asked her, the only person of color in the group, what she was doing there. When I look at Vu’s “Classroom (Former PS)” now, the subject of the painting shifts again, and takes on new meaning. That question— What are you doing here? —now haunts the empty space, along with the people I imagine having once studied there. * Vu’s father, Tan Van Nguyen, did yard work in his old flight suit and once got rid of all the plates and forks in the house so his family would “eat more like Vietnamese people.” Though he instilled in his daughter a fear of authority, he also inspired in her a resistance to conformity, especially when it came to white Americans’ expectations of immigrants and Asian Americans. “My sisters and I weren’t ever told we should get married and have kids,” Vu says. “We couldn’t go out much, but we could read and watch whatever we wanted. I didn’t have to present as hyper-feminine, like some of the other Vietnamese girls I knew. I spent high school in green Doc Martens until they fell apart.” Although Nguyen was initially disappointed in Vu’s decision to go to art school—“At one point he told me never to come home again,” Vu recalls—he eventually came around. “He was proud of me.” Portraits of My Father by Thuy-Van Vu. As an undergraduate at the Rhode Island School of Design, Vu first explored ideas of family and erasure through figurative paintings and prints. Regarding a painting of her father in which his face is repeated multiple times, and in each iteration erased to varying degrees—dripping down the canvas—a professor suggested that “everyone in New York is already doing that. You don’t want to do that.” “When you go into art school, where your work is contextualized in the art market or in the critical discourse, if most of those perspectives are white, then your work isn’t considered in dialogue with that work,” Vu says. She began to feel that painting people, especially her immigrant parents, could be potentially problematic in an environment in which the market often takes precedence. “When you’re eighteen,” she reflects, “you’re just experimenting and working through personal issues. At some point you realize that you’re putting work out for consumption, and that you need to take that into account. And maybe there’s also a way to do what you want to do without being made so vulnerable in front of mostly white people.” Vu was looking for a way to represent personal history without feeling like she was “performing otherness.” And after leaving school, she transitioned to the work she’s been doing since: exploring trauma, history, and the current moment through a focus on evocative objects and still lifes rather than on portraits of family members. “It’s like a song you put on a mixtape,” Vu says about her recent paintings, which she describes as “surrogate situations”—landscapes, objects, and installations she sees as “formal representations of an autobiographical experience.” She notes, “I make paintings that remind me of what I was going through or what my concerns were at the time.” For the viewer, the song on Vu’s mixtape resonates both on and off the canvas. Listening to it is a physical experience, a feeling like being near heat waves rippling off a hot pavement. You feel those ripples in her classroom paintings, and also in 2014’s “Insulation,” her painting of a large pile of discarded pink-fiberglass insulation. (This painting is also the cover of my recent collection of stories.) The insulation appears both cushiony and inviting, yet utterly brutal and unwanted. There’s a strength and a vulnerability to the image that makes you want to collapse into the pile, and also to recoil. Seeing this work, Vu says, calls “for a certain bodily response . . . I love when geometric forms get soft. I love emphasizing the viscerality of depicted forms.” Insulation by Thuy-Van Vu. Vu’s work has this constant tug to it, a tension for me that’s equivalent to the best narrative tension in writing. Take her 2018 painting “Listening to NPR Under Cover,” which initially looks like a photograph of a beautiful quilt in a pile. Upon closer examination you understand that there is a body under the quilt, likely in the fetal position. In this layered image, Vu reveals a mastery of the materials as well as a sense of playfulness in the execution of the work. As with much of her art, the story is complex because she herself is living and working through the story. Part of that story is that Vu is tired. Since receiving her BFA and MFA in painting, she has had a child during the Great Recession, married, divorced, helped care for and cremate her father, who died in 2019, and worked two jobs for much of the past fifteen years in one of the most expensive cities in the country. In 2017, she underwent surgery and six months of chemotherapy, followed by a year of drug therapy. Her time in treatment for breast cancer was a period of reexamination for Vu, one during which she couldn’t make art and instead focused on managing the side effects of chemo while raising a young child. While undergoing chemo, it was “freeing to break from my daily routine and its pressures . . . I finally had time just to think.” Vu found camaraderie and support from her fellow patients in the infusion clinic, who were “more fun than hanging out with academics.” She explains, “They didn’t have time to waste on negativity; we could laugh and joke, talk about bodily fluids.” This connection was healing for Vu, and in finding it she felt another kind of transformation. In treatment, she notes, “everyone’s at different stages in terms of their probable proximity to death. Everyone looks kind of awful. So you have freedom from needing to present as a functional, much less exceptional, human being.” In giving in, Vu allowed herself to stop holding everything together, and holding everything in. Having faced down illness, her priorities have naturally shifted. While she is starting to make art again, she believes that her previous pace of creating wasn’t healthy for her body or her relationships. Since finishing treatment, she’s been working as an academic advisor and has also been managing a program that provides free art workshops to high school students. Though her art-school-self imagined she was making incremental progress toward an art career, she’s happy now with the life she’s carved out for herself in Seattle, a city with a vibrant art scene that is smaller than that of New York or Los Angeles, and perhaps because of that less competitive and more supportive. There Vu has been able to create a life in which her art is not the only focus, but a piece of a larger story. * In the current political climate, Vu remains cautious about representing people in her paintings and profiting off their images. But she is finding herself drawn to portraiture again. We talk about how the great Alice Neel painted people throughout her career, out of curiosity about the human condition, not out of a desire to participate in the market. Most of Neel’s portraits were not sold during her lifetime. In the middle of our conversation, my daughter, who was supposed to be in her bedroom sleeping—or at least feigning sleep—comes down to the basement, where I have set up a slightly secluded office. Both Vu and I are working with constant interruptions now, and likely will be for the foreseeable future. Nyack Classroom (in_progress) by Thuy-Van Vu. So it makes sense that in addition to revisiting portraiture, Vu has also returned to imagining school spaces in her art. Specifically, she’s working on a series of paintings done from class photos. This interest began even before the pandemic took our children out of schools and kept them close to our elbows, but now they seem especially relevant: a record of a record of how our children once gathered together—and away from us. The painting she shares with me is a part of my own family history; “Nyack Classroom” is drawn from a primary school photograph of my aunt’s class in Nyack, New York in the fifties. The children’s faces are open, like their futures. Vu is not sure what she will do with these new school paintings—give them away, show them, keep them? Post-cancer, she says, “just being able to make work again is enough.” Thuy-Van Vu by Winnie Westergaard. This was originally published at Catapult on August 19, 2020, republished with permission. Contributor Bio Sara Schaff is the author of two story collections, The Invention of Love and Say Something Nice About Me. Find more of her work at saraschaff.com.