I paint in the tradition of contemporary art that includes Dadaism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Conceptual Art, Pop Art, and Performance Art. As a Jesuit artist, I ask myself the question: what is left for me to paint if I want to contribute to this long and vigorous history? What I really need to do is to stay faithful to my identity and vocation and paint those unique experiences. So, what are they?
First, I am a priest. I am called to walk with the faithful on the journey of faith and show them a way to God. In this humble vocation, I have the privilege to hear their confessions. I receive their sins and lessen their burdens. Through these powerful and transparent moments, I am able to feel and see their personal wounds. They have a desire to be holy. Their personal wounds make their journey very challenging. This is where I play a role as a priest-to listen and lighten their yoke. I treasure these moments because this is where vulnerability intertwines with grace; forgiveness and love interflow; peace and justice can kiss; healing, hope and transformation become a possibility. These are sacred moments and I want to paint these beautiful moments.
Not only do I hear the wounds of other people, but I also experience my woundedness in my own journey of being a refugee. I did not know my dad until I was five years old because he was put in the re-education camp when the Vietnam War ended. Then came the bittersweet experiences of departure, I was uprooted to America when I was fifteen years old. My Mom, as the only child, was considered as a disgraced daughter because she left behind her mother with no one home to take care of her. My grandmother decided to stay in Vietnam because she understood with her own migrant experience how hard it is to start a new life, especially in a new culture and language. She tasted her own trial when the country was divided in half in 1954. My family history in conjunction with the Vietnamese modern history has marked emotional scars as I grow deeper into my identity as a Vietnamese American. The journey of bi-cultural identity has also led me to a deep understanding of what it means to live in-between worlds, in a liminal state of belonging and un-belonging. I am interested in painting the disoriented, turbulent yet hopeful and exhilarating experiences of being a political refugee.
As a Jesuit, my theological study takes me to the field of theological aesthetics which explores the connection between Beauty (God) and the beautiful (human aesthetic activities). It helps me to learn and examine how beauty is perceived in the human heart and spirit. Within this field is the important study of icons in the Christian community in which icons become places where saints, for example, imprint their likeness and presence on the human world. In other words, icons can be viewed as an in-between space and place for the encounter of the spiritual and the faithful. My subject matter of painting follows this tradition of in-between as I depict the wound which can be referred to as the suffering of Christ and make present the hope of Christ’s redemption. Through the wound, grace, love, mercy, and redemption of God can flow from the one side, the spiritual, to the other, the human realm. The wound is the connection between the abyss of the finite and infinite, between the visible and invisible, between the divine and human.
In conclusion, I paint wound because this subject matter dearly relates to my vocation and identity. I see the wounds of the faithful because they intimately share them with me in the sacrament of reconciliation. I experience woundedness from the journey of being a refugee. I paint wounds because I want to connect the spiritual world with the visible world. The wound can open a space for possibilities of new life. I make the wound visible through gestural stroke, texture of paints and multiple layers of paint which are the fundamental elements of what make up a painting. In other words, painting allows me to be in-between - that is between who I am in the world and what it means to be a Jesuit artist.
Every one of us has been touched or deeply impacted by tragedy and adversary. Perhaps the appropriate response to those traumatic experiences is not focusing on the why or what behind the trauma, but the how. How do we embrace our adversity, tragedy, trauma and find strength and courage during the time of challenges? How to gather strength during challenging times also depends on the aesthetic vision that is how to find beauty in the suffering. My paintings take viewers to the mystical/spiritual dimension of suffering and transformation. They confront the viewers with the image of a wound, allow them to reflect on the nature of woundedness as well as invite them to think about the meaning of suffering.
On one hand, suffering involves many intense emotions such as distress, despair, anguish, and anxiety. On the other hand, a will to survive and conquer adversity also yields a set of feelings such as vulnerability and powerlessness. Besides these emotional weights, suffering can also evoke deep questions about one’s very existence and meaning of life. Bearing those complex emotions and finding existential meanings in these challenging situations can be a valuable and transformative experience. Suffering creates emotional depth and uncovers one’s empathic sensibility.
Can tragedy/ecstasy, anxiety/excitement, distress/vulnerable anguish/trembling be visually expressed? My works want to connect between the visual and the emotional. I want to captivate human emotions in colors. I want to make visible the invisible wounds. I want to paint the resilience of the human spirit soaring in the midst of suffering. I want to paint a tragic heart longing for transcendence. I want to paint beauty in the woundedness.
To this end, I utilize color, texture, and atmospheric perspective to describe these complex experiences. For me, colors carry the weight and intensity of emotions; and I use them to get in touch with my deep feelings. Saturated colors like violet resonate strongly with how I feel about hope. I apply thick paints to create texture to depict the wound. The three-dimensionality of textural paints allows the viewers to see the work, not as a flat surface or illusion of space. At the same time, I build up many layers of paint to achieve a suitable atmospheric perspective to invite viewers to imagine beyond what is presented. A soft shifting layer of paint acts as a veil to reveal the surface underneath which is seen as if the light coming through a window.
My intention for these paintings is to serve as contemplative windows; an opportunity for viewers to explore their own personal journeys of time, space, memory, and experience. They not only provide unitive experience by showing the depth of suffering but also communitive by opening a space for healing.