Watchlist: Anh Trần

Connie Brown on abstraction and translation in Anh Trần's new works.

I watch a video of Anh Trần painting in her studio. She’s squatting in a pair of black Uggs at the edge of a large rectangular canvas on the floor and making long, quick strokes with a pale-blue shade of liquidy paint. Reaching its short edge, she tips the canvas upwards, holding onto the underside of the stretcher with one hand, while swiping downwards with a brush held in the other, sloshing the paint into skids and drips. The slippery pigment makes a frozen lake of the canvas surface that reflects the light coming in through the adjacent window. This reflection, a wobbling blur of blue sky, clouds and dark shadows, is as intelligible an image as this canvas will ever hold, I think, as Trần circles with her broad brush in hand, assertive and restless, moving fluidly between different application methods, tools and gestures.

Only neologisms will do: at-rest-tempestuousness, excess-ex nihilo, stilleven. The latter was the title Trần gave a diptych made last year, Stilleven (who will wait for you at home). It describes the enthralled, elastic quality of movement in the paintings well, though really it’s the Dutch word for ‘still life’. Stil (still) + leven (life). Stilleven: the form favoured by seventeenth-century Dutch artists to boast the bounties brought back from the growing colonies. Trần’s work is the colour of an overripe nectarine, white sgraffito making time-lapse stars in its galaxy-purple centre, which is wreathed by ragged black barbed-wire brush marks and broken in half like lungs splayed for dissection. The expansion of the universe / The smashing of fruit. 

In 2019 Trần was awarded a residency at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. She paused her doctoral studies at Elam to begin the prestigious residency, which was supposed to span two years but was extended into 2022 to make up for Covid-related disruptions. Residents are provided a studio, a materials budget, a stipend and mentorship from a network of practising artists and academics, and are encouraged to experiment for the residency’s duration. 

Since finishing, Trần has shown work in several group exhibitions at major institutions in Europe and the US, including the 8th Biennial of Painting and the 58th Carnegie International. Most recently, her work was featured in Brave New World: 16 Painters for the 21st Century at the Museum de Fundatie in Zwolle. Curated by Hans den Hartog Jager, the exhibition gathers an international cohort of painters under the (somewhat self-evident) premise that painting, and the demands we make of it, has transformed in step with the image-scape at large. Of the participating artists (who include, notably, Njideka Akunyili Crosby and Issy Wood), only Trần and one other work with the language of abstract expressionism. To do so is, in many ways, unfashionable. As canons go, AbEx is formalist, intellectual, full of universalisms and holisms consensus has judged false, and men who never would’ve survived 2017. All of these are qualities that place it at odds with the cultural taste generally for sure-footed self-positioning and representation. In painting, this is arguably one force behind the resurgence of figuration and the presence of the human body, yet Trần’s work is indifferent, if not averse, to this trend. Searching her work for the body or an origin story, the best you’ll come up with are the two spectral handprints of Nights in white satin (2022) and a few ‘I’ forms floating idly like lost souls in the sea fog of her canvases. Occasionally, ‘ANH’ and ‘TRAN’ appear, written in large print that loudly declares the artist’s ‘having been here’, but give little else away. 

Speaking about her work, Trần says that she is “sceptical and careful about approaching these Western painting styles,” that her practice comes from “a desire to take what you cannot do or are supposedly not allowed to do and to use that energy in your own way.” Implied in this is a wish to move abstraction beyond modernism’s homogeneity or, at least, a recognition that this is possible: that abstraction has not reached a dead end, that we needn’t yet concede painting to the representational. 

Not recognised as abstraction’s ‘proper’ subject, Trần, when using its gestures and histories, enacts what political theorist Homi K. Bhabha calls, “an insurgent act of cultural translation,” by which it is contested and renewed.[1] Translation is always a tussle. “Speaking two languages may seem a relative affluence,” Sara Suleri writes in her memoir Meatless Days, a classic of postcolonial literature, “but more often it entails the problems of maintaining a second establishment even though your body can be in only one place at a time.”[2] As a native Vietnamese speaker who has lived and studied in English- and Dutch-speaking countries, Trần is no doubt accustomed to the act of self-translation and the conundrum Suleri describes. But she also seems to seek it out, as with moving to Europe and therefore closer to the centre of Western thought and traditions—the greater proximity and friction of which seems only to make her more confident and ambitious.

In her work, she tends to further complicate the problem of language, working with French phrases and words that quietly nod to the colonial history of her home country. In Have you ever loved someone as deep as the ocean? (2021), ‘La mer’, written in loopy script with cobalt spray-paint across the top of a form that resembles the red sea or a fatty steak, tumbles off the edge of the canvas, reading as a cryptic ‘La m’, the ‘er’ left behind on the studio wall. It makes me think of Etel Adnan, who, after writing her first poem, found her​​self unable to translate it from French to Arabic. “The whole poem is developed along the metaphor of the sea being a woman and the sun a warrior, or a masculine principle,” she writes: la mer / le soleil. Because the gendering of the two nouns is inverted in the Arabic language, “the poem is not only untranslatable, it is, in a genuine sense, unthinkable in Arabic.”[3] 

When Adnan took up abstraction, she would describe her works as being painted ‘in Arabic’. Her intention, which I think is also Trần’s, was to find (in paint) a language for what had proven (in words) unthinkable. Translation is always a tussle, likely to be riddled with losses and lacunae; but the need to make up for these is, Bhabha tells us, the basis of hybridity, requiring a constant traffic between different and often antagonistic modes of thought, cultural contexts, languages and people. If it was indeed left forlorn by the postmodern turn—if “history has embarrassed the utopian hopes associated with early abstract art,” as Kenneth Baker puts it in an essay for Artforum published in September 1989—then abstraction has much to gain from Bhabha’s contention that “the wider significance of the postmodern condition lies in the awareness that the epistemological ‘limits’ of those ethno­centric ideas are also the enunciative boundaries of a range of other dissonant, even dissident histories and voices.”[4] By this definition, the ‘dead end’ that “arouses much anxiety” in the Western art canon is not a fear of death or an ending, but the intrusion of modernity’s ‘other’ subject, ready with its account of history and the present (of history in the present) that has yet to be fully recognised within the abstract gesture.[5] For those of us to whom this intrusion is welcome, urgent even, Trần is an artist to watch.

Header image: Anh Trần, The rescue will begin in its own time, 2022, 244 x 500 cm. Courtesy Galerie Fons Welters. Photo: Sonia Mangiapane 

[1] Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 2004), 10. 
[2] Sara Suleri, Meatless Days (New York: Penguin Random House, 2018), 169.
[3] Etel Adnan, To look at the sea is to become what one is: An Etel Adnan Reader (New York: Nightboat Books, 2014), 251. 
[4] Kenneth Baker, ‘Abstract Jestures,’ Artforum, September 1989, 136; Bhabha, The Location of Culture, 6.
[5] Ibid, 136.

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