Inhale, Exhale - Watercolour, gouache, ink, pencil and gold leaf on Arches paper.
There is no contained emotion, no holding back. Hieu introduces his figures with an energy that encapsulates the low hum you hear if you listen carefully enough. This low hum is not a foreign presence for Hieu, he embraces and seeks it in all his travels; in the music he hears, in the people he meets. If he could literally embrace the world he would, but because of that impossibility he finds a way to manifest that vision into his phenomenal creations.
Hieu is an exception to the watercolour rules, his fluidity and ability to seize some level of control over the moving medium makes their form truly unique and kelogsloops recognisable. He balances an all out joy for life, crazy megaphone shouting, skateboarding down hills, jumping off things and learning how to backflip over an entire weekend just "because" with a sincere maturity of someone beyond his years, who has visited this place way too many times. Now, he just gets to play (albeit combined with some crazy working hours), knowing it's all about embracing every second as it unfolds.
The last two years have been intense ones, not many breaks and certainly the seizing of his catch phrase coming into fruition (Be Right Back Chasing Dreams) and now we finally get to see kelogsloops in Melbourne, his home town. This will be an especially momentous event that will finally have his friends, family and long time Australian fans see all his work in one place. When I spoke to Hieu (in the interview below), he said this is a significant show for him to be able to share with his Mum, a touching moment to share with Hieu for anyone that can make it to opening night on the 4th of May.
Kylie Dexter: There is so much depth and meaning that to goes into your preparations for a solo show. What was your inspiration for this solo exhibition "Breathe"?
Hieu Nguyen: Breathe came about because of a realisation I had late last year. It was at the end of a very intense period for me physically, emotionally and mentally; I was wrapping up working on my first mini-solo exhibition, "Flood" at Haven Gallery. Working on that show exhausted every resource that I had in me and I'd really burnt out by the end of it. In saying that, it was all worth it because it was such a huge achievement and I had the best time because of it.
But in retrospect, the only reason I was able to pull through what seemed impossible for me at the time was the support systems I had. Amongst all the chaos and struggle, the people that supported me allowed me to "breathe". It wasn't until after the show was over that I realised how important it was to actively find that moment of mental space throughout the chaos of it all. To know that things happen for a reason and that even though hell might break lose and everything might go upside down, things will just work out the way they're supposed to. So this show, Breathe is a reminder to myself, but also hopefully to those that see my work, that we have to remember to stop and breathe every once in a while.
KD: There is a strong presence of familiars in these new pieces, they seem to be in a living connection with the figures. Could you describe their meaning and how they are linked to your inspiration?
H: In each of the paintings I wanted to create these "spaces of rest" for the figures to exist in and I imagined that these familiars were something akin to guardians. Protectors of some sort, that watch over that safe haven and keep it from being broken. They're familiars that are recognised as symbols of strength, for example, in some East-Asian cultures the tiger is generally synonymous with strength and resilience.
I think subconsciously those animals were representative of what my friends and family are to me - my support systems. They're symbols of strength to me because they were able to metaphorically create these spaces for me to breathe and continue to operate in. Without them, I don't think those spaces of rest would exist.
KD: You recently reached a huge milestone on Instagram, 1 Million followers! That must be mind blowing! Firstly, big congratulations and can you tell us what it means to you personally to have so many fans that engage with you and feel that they can relate to your work on this level.
H: Thank you!! It's been a very surreal past couple of weeks as I've been trying to let it sink in.
I was thinking about this the other day. The thought that there are THAT many people in the world who connect with my work is honestly a daunting one. At first there feels like a overwhelming sense of responsibility that comes with that - to be a role model of some sort and that I HAVE to do X and Y and to act or be a certain way. But I don't think it's like that at all with my fans. I realised that those people are just cheering me on along each step of the way and they're here for the journey.
There are heartfelt messages of congratulations with every achievement I make, there are words of encouragement and support with every struggle I face and there are people who are inspired by the things I challenge myself with. Everyone's so supportive that I don't feel this pressure to do anything that I don't want to do, so I can just really be myself, do what I enjoy and what I believe is right and people will still cheer me on.
Working in the creative industry there seems to be a fear that you carry along with you every step of the way. It's the uncertainty and fear of failure that cripples you at times but having this kind of support just keeps me going. I honestly feel so fortunate to have that kind of support. It's priceless, and I wouldn't trade it for anything.
KD: Hieu, you are honestly one of the sincerest artists I have had the pleasure to know, how do you keep grounded in the chaos of preparing for a show of this size?
H: If I'm honest, I go into phases of "lockdown" when I'm working on something big like this. I'll usually put aside a few months where I became a hermit and just put stay in my studio for weeks on end painting and working. It's a bit hard to stay focussed and motivated for such a prolonged period of time, working on a single project, so I usually become a social recluse temporarily. It gets a bit extreme sometimes and is honestly probably a very unhealthy way to go about it (I wouldn't recommend it), but I think it's a good way for me to work personally because it keeps me focussed solely on the show.
KD: This is your first solo exhibition in Australia, it must be particularly exciting because it's your home town of Melbourne, is this an important event for you and will we finally meet Mamma Hieu in person! She is YouTube famous in her own right now.
H: This is going to be one of the most memorable events of my LIFE and honestly, I'm probably going to cry at the opening night. To put it simply, my friends and family have never seen my work in person. I've only done shows overseas or interstate and so this will be the first time they get to see the stuff I do and we'll finally get to all celebrate something together!
Most importantly though, my mum has never seen what I do. She doesn't use or really understand social media, so she doesn't know about my following even after all these years. She supports what I do, but because she doesn't understand what I do, she's always just been concerned about my future. Hopefully there will be a lot of family, friends and fans there so she can at least understand to an extent the reach or effect of what I do. Once she sees this all, she might really be able to understand and not have to worry anymore. I want nothing more than to be able to put my mum's concerns to rest. I want her to be proud of what I do and to be able to point at a painting on the wall and say "my son made that!"
I think this show is so important to me because it's more than just my first Australian solo, it's the chance for me to say to my mum, "Mum, this is what I do. You don't have to worry about me anymore. I will be okay."
KD: I would love to know who you admire as an artist and how does that influence your own work and ideas?
H: I could go on forever for who inspires me, but I am a very adamant and obsessive fan of Lois Van Baarle (Loish) and Silvia Pelissero (Agnes-Cecile). These artists have inspired me for such a long time and I still have so much respect and adoration for the incredible work they do. I think they influence my work mostly through the storytelling element of their work and the capacity to capture moods and the way they create meaningful compositions.
I think Silvia's work continues to inspire my ideas because of the emotional component in her work. Her paintings are raw, candid and often associated with vulnerability. You can almost feel her paintings, and that's always been a trait that I've admired and loved in her work.
On the other hand, Lois has inspired me not only through her beautiful and distinctive style, but through her work ethic and her passion. In my eyes, she just does what she loves and she's always stayed true to herself. That much shows through her work and it's something I've always admired. Her openness to sharing her experience, her love for art and her desire to teach is something I've always aspired to reflect in myself as an artist. I think her story alone has been very influential in inspiring me to go out and just do what I love. And her art? Oh I could go on about that for hours.
For this show specifically though, I was inspired a lot by a sudden obsession with Zhang Yimou's films. I recently re watched Yimou's wuxia films like Hero and House of Flying Daggers (see scene above). I'd watched them as a kid but as an adult, ohhh boy! The way he just seemingly paints a scene with colour or composes his shots and all the intricate details - every shot is just a visual orgasm. There's a specific scene that inspired a lot of the aesthetic for this show which is the scene from "Hero" where the character Moon fights Flying Snow in this forest. The scene is painted with falling yellow leaves. Specifically, this scene when they're both fighting mid-air. If you froze that frame right there, that's the one. It's the movement, the flow, the graceful swordplay that almost seems like a dance. He really is a genius.
KD: BRB Chasing dreams is the inspiring way you speak of the way you live your life. Can you share what that phrase means for you, where it came from and how you still achieve that goal of aspiring higher and higher in each piece you create?
H: That phrase came from a conversation I had with a very close friend of mine back when I was still studying Physiotherapy. It was a time where I was really conflicted about what I was doing and what I wanted to do. I wanted to pursue my creative endeavours, but I was too afraid to make that leap of faith. I decided that I wanted to try and work on my art whilst studying Physiotherapy, in hopes that one day I could make my dreams come true, even if it meant taking baby steps by doing art on the side. I decided to commit all my spare time towards drawing and improving my work and told myself that if I could one day stand on my own two feet as an artist, then maybe there really was something worthwhile in my art. Maybe then, just maybe, I would give art my everything and really chase that dream. So, I told her in one of our texts, "brb, gonna go chase my dreams". That phrase never left me since. It became a mantra for me to live by, a reminder every day to keep on learning and challenging myself and to continue chasing my dreams with the intention of never stopping.
Even though a lot has changed and I quite literally am living the dream I sought to chase out those years ago, I've never lost sight of the desire to just keep on growing and challenging myself. I'm always trying new things and learning to improve my work. For example, I never drew animals or males, but look where we are now!
KD: You have an incredible group of friends and family that seem to keep you grounded. How have they all reacted to your success?
H: Funnily enough, my closest friends and family just kind of shrug it off nonchalantly. I think at this point they're all so normalised to each of my achievements that even major milestones are "oh cool, anyway" in our conversations. That's not to say they're not happy for me or that they don't care, it's just nothing new to them because they've been there for me from the beginning and they've cheered me on each step of the way. Every new height I reach is simply another step in their eyes. And honestly, I like it that way.
KD: Lastly, would love to know what you hope the viewers feel when seeing your work on opening night for the first time and do we have to get in line to talk to you?
H: The show is really a reminder for us to "breathe". Everyone has their own demons to face and struggles to fight, so I want nothing more but my work to just achieved a single moment of ease for them. If viewers can really feel just that, then my work has done its job! I hope that I walk around and all I hear is people collectively "breathing" or sighing so it sounds like a marathon was just run.
I never get to talk about my work because my friends are probably sick of me already and I don't have many art friends so this is the one night I get to talk about my work!
10 quick questions. GO
Favourite song right now?
Arcade Fire - Wake Up
What do you do to relax?
Put on my headphones and listen to music.
Favourite place on earth?
New York City
How much do you love your Mum?
Current Number 1 thing on your bucket list?
To see the cherry blossoms in Japan
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Most exciting news in the last 6 months?
I HAD A SOLO EXHIBITION!
One word that describes you?
One word your friends would use to describe you?
Close your eyes for 30 seconds and tell me what you see!
I'm running along trail in a grassy field that keeps on going (kind of like the one in Mt Cook in New Zealand). It's just a huge open field that stretches forever.
kelogsloops “In My Own” – Painting process.
kelogsloops' solo exhibition "Breathe" opens on 4 May 2019 at Beinart Gallery in Brunswick, Victoria.