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Q&A: Loc Huynh

We had the pleasure of collaborating with Huynh earlier this year to release Holy Mackerel!, a limited edition print that evokes the intimate storytelling and surprise moments of texture found in his larger practice. In Western Bootleg, his June 2023 solo exhibition at Inman Gallery, Huynh continued his expansion of unique narratives and formal exploration.

Inspired by his diverse range of references and technical prowess, we asked the Texan-born painter a few questions about the exhibition, his process, where to eat in Houston, and what the art world needs right now.

I love how emotionally accessible your work is. The paintings exude an energetic warmth even when it’s clear they’re offering a multitude of interpretations. It’s also very dialectic — holding multiple, seemingly oppositional truths, histories, or narratives at once. The title Western Bootleg seems to speak to this directly. There’s a playful tone that’s actually somewhat searing but the exhibition is a celebration, replete with song, dance, and ceremony, as in the references to lì xì (lucky money). I feel like I’d think this was a punk stance even if you hadn’t included the Punk Rock Áo dái Cowgirl paintings! Can you share a bit about how you landed on the title Western Bootleg, as well as the thread you envision running through this body of work?

Thank you for the kind words! I saw the title as taking ownership of bootlegging. I grew up watching bootlegged films, wearing bootlegged merchandise, and playing with bootlegged toys that family members would bring over from visits to Vietnam. It wasn’t until I entered school that I learned these were “knock-offs” and seen as cheap copies of western culture. 

With Western Bootleg, I wanted to subvert those expectations of copied or borrowed imagery. I took motifs that are widely disseminated in Vietnamese culture — for example, the references to folk paintings and printed imagery — alongside “Texified” imagery that includes various visual tropes associated with Texas and the west. I’ve described this exhibition as a game of visual telephone, with the focus on what is created through reinterpretation rather than what is lost. 

I think borrowing and reusing imagery also has roots in punk culture. A lot of punk graphics are collaged, reconfiguring iconographies to create something unique from what is found. That’s sort of the whole ethos of this show. I didn’t come up with an original concept for any of these paintings, but instead I came up with new ways to paint something that already exists, in forms that incorporate personally resonant imagery. 

I'm someone who firmly believes you don’t got to reinvent the wheel every time you’re trying to do something unique. Even the title of the show has got layered meaning, in a playful way. Everything — from the footwear associated with cowboy culture to how Eastern countries bootleg western goods — is brought up in the title alone. 

Food and beverage are ongoing motifs in your body of work, like the can of Dr. Pepper in The Great Rattle Dragon Parade (2022) and the kitchen scene in Holy Mackerel! (2021) on which our 2023 collaboration was based. What role did food play in your life growing up? How has that changed over time?

I think food is one of the most universal languages and that’s why I continue to work with representations of it. Food is honestly the biggest lifeline connecting me to my Vietnamese and Chinese heritage. Growing up, I feel I took for granted the amazing meals my mom would cook. I think I realized how special those dishes were when I got to college. Missing my moms cooking while feeding myself junky fast food helped me gain a renewed appreciation for Vietnamese cuisine.

Your work goes heavy on texture from skillfully airbrushed patterns to collaged elements. It was really fun for us to incorporate some of that tactility into the print edition of Holy Mackerel!. A few of the paintings in Western Bootleg push even further into three-dimensions with sculptural additions like plastic flowers and faux-fur. Have you experimented with sculpture before? Are you interested in continuing to expand your work from the 2D plane?

I've always had an admiration for 3D artists and have dabbled in sculpture and 3D forms quite a bit but I always fall back on painting. So, to me at least, it only made sense to incorporate these sculptural elements into the painted surface. They offer a juxtaposition between the somewhat illusionistic airbrush mark and the tactile surface of other materials. I’ve also found it really fun to paint on non-rectangular surfaces like tondos and shaped canvases, which is kind of like the in-between space of sculpture and painting.

What’s the first thing you do when you get to the studio? Drink a lot of water and decide what I want to start working on that day. I work on multiple projects at a time and for better or worse it keeps me from getting bored.

What do you do when you’re feeling creatively stuck? I just draw literally anything and keep my hands moving with something. I always try to keep things interesting and exciting through exploring different painting techniques or materials and themes. I haven’t really experienced a creative block in a while, so maybe it’s working.

Favorite restaurant in Houston? Tough one cause there are so many great eats here. It’s honestly between Spicy Girl and Mala Sichuan Bistro. Big spicy boi here.

Favorite Vietnamese dish? Cá Chiên Xả Ớt, it’s fried fish with lemongrass and chilis and it’s delicious. My mom used to make it all the time when I was a kid.

Favorite museum in Texas? The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. They always have good exhibitions and a great collection.

Who are a few of your favorite artists working right now? Peter Saul is my favorite painter ever, but artists like Nina Chanel Abney, Lamar Peterson, Roger Shimomura, Red Grooms, Alice Neel, and Philip Guston have also been on my mind a lot lately.

One article, book, movie, or podcast you came across recently and would like to recommend.  I’ve been reading The Body Keeps the Score, and it’s been helpful with learning how people process trauma. I consider that and Permission to Come Home: Reclaiming Mental Health as Asian Americans to be nice companion pieces. I’m a big advocate for mental health, so I think it’s important to learn about it as well. I also recently watched Infinity Pool, which was a stressful watch, but it’s a cool psychological rollercoaster of a film.

What do you want to see more of in the art world? Inclusion of people not just from LA or NYC and not just from big name art programs. There’s amazing art and artists everywhere. As important as places like NYC and LA are, the art world hubs are still very centralized. I think everyone everywhere has a story worth telling and I’d like to see the art world uplift more voices.

It’s 2pm on a rainy Tuesday. Where are you? In the studio occasionally stepping out to look at the rain and feeding the stray cats that hang out here.

Collect Now: Loc Huynh

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