It is hard to resist a seamless blend of traditional elements and contemporary trends, or smooth use of personal imagery to speak of universal topics. And this is precisely the type of work that Loc Huynh developed in the past couple of months while working towards his first solo exhibition in New York which is now on view at New Release gallery.

The exhibition entitled ăn ngon (Eat Delicious), is mixing the evocative nature of the familiar and relatable domestic scenes with the excitement of the fresh and inspiring painterly techniques. Tapping into the love for family, as well as heritage and cultural traditions, but seen through the eyes of an second-generation immigrant, these calming visuals are focused on the relatable subject of homecooking and food. No matter the culture and the tradition, almost everyone has some sort of memories and emotions in regards to sharing a meal with other people. Be it with your closest family, partners, coworkers, or flatmates, such everyday rituals are often the ones we miss the most once we find ourselves outside the familiar surrounding. Confirmed by the German idiom “love goes through the stomach”, there is a direct and indesputable connection between food and love, and Huynh’s presentation is built on that familiar sentiment. With authentic fabric patterns, attention to detail in terms of portraying the typical meals, this series of works celebrates the daily home life, and especially the artist’s relationship with his mother, Mai Pham, and her dog, Downy. 

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Sharing and intensifying love and life by cooking and eating together is celebrated by visuals in which the main protagonist is preparing or enjoying food in the company of her pet. Paying tribute to his Vietnamese heritage through the selection of authentic meals, kitchenware, tableware, clothing, or home decorations, there are also nods to the American culture placed side-by-side. Portrayed with cartonesque visual language which highly stylizes the chosen scenery, a jar of Jif peanut butter alongside Hoisin or Sriracha sauce becomes a way for Huynh to find his own place in this environment. 

These images spoke to us from the moment we first saw them a few months ago, and we used this opportunity to talk to the Austin-born artist about the technical and conceptual aspect of them.

Sasha Bogojev: How did you develop interest in the subject matter of this show?
Loc Huynh: My interest in the figure has always been persistent. Throughout college, I was making figure work, and it wasn’t until I had a revelation that decided to turn inward and started making works about the people and things that are close and mattered to me. It took a while for me to make art that I’d consider sincere.

Is there a particular reason/drive/goal that makes you render such personal, everyday moments in your work?
I initially began this body of work as a subversion to European genre paintings, in the likes of Vermeer, and to meet a deadline for a show that was coming up at the time. But as I started to develop the work, it became something more and I started to investigate my own background, growing up in a Vietnamese-American household. I forget who said it, but a professor in college once said “paint what you know.” I took that as an initiative to start mining my own personal experiences with my mother for content and subject matter. I know my mother, and I know the food she’d prepare for me, so I started making these paintings to honor those moments that I look back on with fondness. Still in line with the idea of genre paintings, I think that something does not have to be overly grandiose to be interesting, mundane scenes are exciting in their own right. 

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Besides them being a genre painting, they do seem a bit poetic in a way you capture these moments.
There is a quiet heroism of a mother cooking a meal for her family, and I think those moments are worth painting about. It’s funny, I’ve sometimes described these paintings as collaborations with my mother, because I would call or text her about certain dishes she would make and how to spell and pronounce them in Vietnamese.

On a technical level, can you tell me a bit about your technique, the use of acrylics and airbrush?
When I started painting, I was, and still am, attracted to the tactile possibility of paint. I started off painting with oil, but I’ve been using acrylics for years now. I have found that acrylic has a lot of qualities that appeal to me; easy to layer, the ability to create a consistent surface, and most importantly for me, fast drying time. I am a very impatient painter. 

Why do you think so or why is that?
My approach to painting is just an elaboration on drawing. All my paintings start off as drawings which I use as a plan for the final and more finished work.

What kind of elements do you enjoy including in the work?
I have a love for the history of painting. I am drawn to geometric abstractions, like Al Held, but I also love representational figurative works, like Alice Neel. Along with painting, I am also attracted to the visual language and narrative capability of cartoons and comics. Because of these eclectic interests, I found myself a bit unsatisfied with trying to make either a strictly abstract or figurative work. So try to combine all those elements into each piece. 

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So how do you go about incorporating/depicting all of them at once and how does your process look like?
I have a very maximalist sensibility. I’ve often described the individual works as multiple paintings functioning in one, kind of like a collage of different painting applications. Color interaction and texture are also things that I think about in my work. At their foundation, the paintings are concerned with formalist problems of color and composition. The treatment of materials is very planned out and structured. I always have a finished stage in mind for the paintings, I am very much a completionist. Reflective and fluorescent colors are also incorporated to create interesting surfaces that make the painting’s true nature a bit difficult to photograph.

Did you have any memorable responses to this body of work from the Vietnamese community or perhaps someone outside of it?
I often have Vietnamese folks tell me that these scenes remind them of their mothers, or they have an instant connection with the food that is being depicted. Food is a great ambassador of culture, and I feel that the familiarity with certain dishes is what draws people in. Conversely, I’ve also had people who weren’t Vietnamese or Asian-American connect with the paintings as well, because there is something nostalgic about seeing someone’s mother prepare food, or they understand what it’s like to have a mother who has taken up a maternal role with a pet.

Yes, I certianly have the same sentiment towards them. How does it feel for you to be hitting such universal nerve?
It excites me, and even warms my heart, that these deeply personal works have the capacity to connect with a broad range of people.

ăn ngon (Eat Delicious) is on view through November 14, 2021