The first thing you need to know about Nam Nghiem is that he’s a perfectionist. Not the insecure, obsessive kind that re-does a mark 20 times until he’s either crying or satisfied – no, Nghiem is the kind that shows up to work in the shop at Alexander Hall wearing head-to-toe white.
When I met him in the workshop last weekend he was there to work out the kinks in one of the prints to be featured in his first solo show. The exhibition, titled SMDGLST, opens on Friday, October 30 and will contain over 40 original screen-printed pieces, all of which were created in the last month and a half. It’s a remarkable body of work for any young printmaker, but it becomes even more so when you find out that Nghiem is actually a painter. (And a damn good one at that – he was awarded the “Best in Show” prize at SCAD’s 2015 BFA Senior Painting showcase.)
Why would a successful young painter transition over to screen-printing so suddenly? My first instinct was that Nghiem must have been frustrated by the canvas’s limitations. Not so. “It’s more like I’m frustrated with myself, not with painting. Painting can do anything,” he told me. “I tend to over-think stuff, so this body of work is a way to free myself from that.”
SMDGLST is all about systematizing the art-making process. Nghiem starts by pulling images he likes off of the internet (fashion editorials, Bruce Nauman prints, anime screenshots, etc) and saving them to his iPhone. Occasionally, he’ll use images he’s taken himself, like a photo of a friend or an abstracted image of the Jen library staircase, for example. An internet connection and his phone have become the two major tools in his artistic arsenal, allowing him the freedom to find images that appeal to him on an intuitive level. “It’s an aesthetic decision. How many reasons can you like an image online?” he mused. “It’s aesthetic, is nostalgic, something intrigues you sexually – anything. I just let it run. I don’t want to feel like I have to choose something because of its historical significance.”
Once the images are pulled, Nghiem proceeds with his formula. He places his ubiquitous black mark on top of them (there’s an ominousness to this thing that Nghiem repeatedly refers to as “the mark”) and uploads the image to his Instagram account. He calls these “sketches”. The black mark is an abstraction, a filter through which Nghiem conceptually manipulates his images, both appropriated and self-made. “The psychological effect is different on each image,” he explained. “You never know what’s going to happen. Sometimes it just obscures the whole image so you have to figure out what’s behind it… Sometimes it makes the image feel like something is wrong – like a photograph which has been damaged. It gives you a sense of sadness.”
The mark also functions to tie the works together, giving Nghiem greater conceptual freedom. Composition and formatting are no longer mental obstacles he has to deal with; the SMDGLST formula allows him to focus on what really matters to him right now: exploring his aesthetic and examining his own intuition.
In the workshop, Nghiem put me to work helping him re-do one of his prints. Though his system is precise, the results often aren’t. Working halfway between digital and physical mediums is perhaps helping Nghiem step away from his perfectionist ways. “The digital stuff exists in an ideal condition, but when you actually execute it, you have to work with it and make it the way you want,” he says. “When I print the image a lot of things happen and every run I make always has a little error. It makes things, in a way, richer.”
Listening to him talk, I can feel the tension between an artist who wants to let go and someone who still has a deep need to retain control over his work. Perhaps that internal struggle is part of what keeps the work engaging. There’s an organic feel to his formula, a depth that reflects the curious coldness of its digital origins and the intimacy of its intuition-based genesis.
As Nghiem and I said our goodbyes, I noticed not a drop of ink had marred his white ensemble. We shook hands and I turned to leave. Closing my finger into my palm, I found a smear of black ink where his hand had been a moment before. Perfection, it would seem, is not without impression.
SMDGLST opens at Non-Fiction Gallery on Friday, October 30 with an opening reception from 6pm – 9pm.