East Los Angeles College
Surana Singh-Bischofberger is an Assistant Professor of Art History at East Los Angeles College, where she has been teaching since 2004. She studied Art History and Visual Culture at U.C. Santa Cruz, where she earned her Bachelor’s Degree. She completed her Master’s Degree in Theory, Criticism, and History of Art, Design, and Architecture at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. Her research interests are in Modern European and Asian visual culture, with emphasis on India, Germany and Switzerland, where traditional imagery is used in constructs of national identity.
Artists & Professors
The following interview with the painter Phung Huynh is the first in the series of interviews for Artists & Professors, where practicing artists who teach at one of the nine colleges of the Los Angeles Community College District are interviewed. My goal as an interviewer is to ask questions whose answers will paint a picture of the artist and provide insight into the creative process. The reader also has the option of going further, and thanks to the digital format of West, links have been provided that offer instantaneous access to more content.
Artists & Professors
Surana Singh-Bischofberger Talks to Phung Huynhclick here. A recent commission she completed was the Chinese Elephant for the Los Angeles County Zoo exhibit Elephants of Asia. For more information about this ongoing exhibit, click here. Huynh has been teaching at Valley College since 2009, where she is an Assistant Professor of Art. She has curated exhibitions and authored publications as Co-Manager of the Art Gallery. On display at the Valley College Art Gallery at the time of this interview was Dane Picard, Selected Recent Works. For the Art Gallery location, hours of operation, exhibitions, and publications, click here.
On the evening before Halloween, I had dinner with the Phung Huynh and her family at her home. She was so gracious in accommodating this interview, as seen in the transcript below.
SURANA: What personal experience has had the greatest impact on your artistic production?
PHUNG: The greatest impacts are usually an experience that deals with my dual identity in terms of culture. My father is Cambodian and my mother is Chinese, born in Vietnam, and I was born in Vietnam, and we immigrated to the United States in 1978...[when] I was one-and-a-half. So, I’ve always experienced this duality of being both Southeast Asian and American.
The greatest experience was one where I either identify with one or neither; and it had to do with a public art project that I did; and it was to design the façade of a low-income housing project in Chinatown, and I was very honored to design this public art commission for this building. And, it was right next to an elementary school that I went to. And when I designed this design, the idea was to have these Chinese cherubs in front of the building summoning luck to the people and the families living in the building. [She uses her hands to gesture design].
So, I used these Chinese cherubs and fish and lotus flowers, and in my research it meant good luck and prosperity. When the design was approved, right before it was to go into fabrication, a Chinatown project manager, who was from Hong Kong, probably in her early sixties, did not like the design, and felt that I wasn’t Chinese enough, or understood the Chinese culture, and said that I was mixing Hindu, [with] Christian from the fish, and Buddhism from the lotus flowers, and being very irreverent and painting dark-skinned babies, and I was very shocked, and that really made a big impact in my experience, and what I made in my work, because I just did not expect that kind of reaction towards my work – just the feeling of being ostracized, or criticized for a culture that I felt very comfortable and close to, and so it was very interesting the way that I received that kind of reaction.
SURANA: What professional experience has had the greatest impact on your artistic production?
PHUNG: [She takes a moment to consider.] I would say illustration. As an undergrad, I studied illustration at Art Center, but I knew that I wanted to study Fine Art, and to move to New York, and I went to New York University for my graduate degree. And, in the meantime, I illustrated for various magazines and publication to support myself in graduate school, and so I illustrated. I did illustrations for hip hop magazines, and all sorts of publications, and realized I don’t want to make images for people telling me what to do [laughs]. Big heads and small bodies and things like that, and I really wanted to make my own work. And that was the biggest professional impact in my career, [which] is to decide where I am going, [and] to make work and paintings that really reflect my experiences and my ideas, rather than to be commissioned to make illustrations. Yeah.
SURANA: If you would describe your work with no more than five adjectives, what would these be?
PHUNG: [She smiles.] Polemical, miscommunication, whimsical, dark… [She takes a moment, and then continues.] And I would have to say pop! [She laughs.]
SURANA: If you could organize a group exhibition with four other artists and yourself, living or dead, who would they be and why would you want to show your work with them?
PHUNG: Wow…that’s a tough question [She smiles and looks to the right.] Okay, well, Artemisia Gentileschi, the Italian Baroque painter; [I] always admired the dexterity in her oil paintings, but the life that she lived, being a woman in the seventeenth century… and being so bold, and brave with the things she painted, the catharsis of her rape experience through her paintings of Judith and Holofernes. So, that’s one.
Another one would be Manuel Ocampo, a Filipino artist, and I really enjoy the imagery in his paintings that depict post-colonialism, and making perverse the Catholic tradition in his paintings.
Shahzia Sikander, the Pakistani-American artist. And again, post-colonialism and cultural fusion are something that I very much take interest in...work and see in other artists, so the way in which she integrates Islamic and Hindu iconography in her paintings I really like, and the blend of the East and the Western aesthetic in her paintings I also really enjoy.
And the fourth artist—wow, I’ve named all painters—but the fourth artist would be sculptress Rebekah Bogard, who is currently living and working in Reno, Nevada. Her works are ceramic, painted sculptures, usually of animals, who take on human behaviors, and they are very kitschy and animated, so I really enjoy that, too. Kitsch is something that I am very interested in as well.
SURANA: Where in the world would you go or have you gone for inspiration?
PHUNG: Besides my studio [smiles and laughs]...well, living in New York was very inspirational for me. I’ve never been in a city that was so concentrated with so much activity and stimuli and art. I mean, the Met and MOMA; that was very inspirational, and the quick pace of things. But a place where I would really want to go for inspiration would be Angkor-Wat, the temple ruins. I would love to visit those temples, and especially to see, from what I’ve heard, this almost contradiction, a very spiritual, Buddhist contradiction of these wondrous temples and Buddhist sculptures that are falling apart because the jungles and the trees are growing, and the outgrowth is basically deteriorating these temple ruins, but at the same time, you can’t take the tree down, and cut in down, because then the temple ruins would be completely destroyed. So, it is this weird contradiction of just having to let it go, and I really want to see that.
SURANA: What in L.A. inspires you?
PHUNG: What in L.A. inspires me? Well, lately I think living in the city, with so much activity–I’m a mother, a professor of art, and trying to make work, [so it] feels like our life is so busy, there’s so much activity all the time, that's what inspires me. In L.A. right now are things like the desert or hiking, where there is quiet [emphasizes the word]. Complete stillness inspires me right now [nods, laughs shortly, and smiles].
SURANA: If you could give yourself any bit of advice ten years ago, what would that be?
PHUNG: To not rush; right after undergrad I went to grad school and immediately went into the workforce and started producing work. What I would have told myself ten years ago is to take at least a year or two after undergrad to experience life and to travel a little bit and to gain some insight from real life experience outside of academia. I would have done that. And, after grad school, I would’ve done many more residencies. [She is joined by her son Quinn, who sits with her for the conclusion of the interview.]
SURANA: How might this advice have impacted you as an artist?
PHUNG: I think it would have given me undistracted time to really investigate and really reflect on my work. And, although I love my real-life experiences, but yeah, just some time, where I am able to really focus on why I am making work and the kind of work that I make without being distracted or feeling obligated to take care of getting a job. You know, taking care of things that everybody has to take care of. But, you have that small opportunity to do nothing but focus on your studies and scholarship in a way that you can’t when you are in the workforce and having a real life. So, I would’ve done that.
SURANA: Besides the visual arts, are there other art forms that you are interested in or that inspire you?
PHUNG: I love music, live music, live theater, but definitely seeing art being made–performance, witnessing artists making the work and being involved in the work, I think that is quite phenomenal. So, live music, theater, and film [smiles]. I really enjoy film. Yeah [nods], those would be the other art forms that really inspire me.
SURANA: Considering the body of your work, what piece has impacted you the most, or would you explain why one in particular is your favorite?
PHUNG: That is a very difficult one [smiles], 'cause I think that as an artist there’s such ebbs and flows and a wide range of experiences, but if I had to pick one it would be the piece that I made for the Chinatown public art project that was rejected, because I really had good intentions, I really had this intention of designing something that was contemporary, that I felt was culturally not only authentic, but honest about bringing prosperity, so the piece that I designed with these cherubs, again with the fish [she uses her hand to gesture design] and the lotus, and the combination of the two images represent prosperity and good luck. That piece really, really impacted my work, because it really made me think about interpretation and how people see your work and how they interpret it, and depending on their vantage point, what culture, what life experiences, and interpreting artwork, the object that you make plays a big role in your own process of making work.
SURANA: Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions, and I’m sure your audience will wish you nothing but success.
PHUNG: Thank you [smiles and laughs].
This concludes the interview by Surana Singh-Bischofberger of painter and Professor Phung Huynh, which took place the evening of Sunday, October 30, 2011.
Interested in the artists that Phung Huynh would have in her group show?
See the following links for video, still visuals, and content:
- Artemisia Gentileschi, link for Judith and Holofernes on display at the Museo di Capodimote in Naples, Italy, click here.
- Manuel Ocampo, link for a past exhibition at Track 16 Gallery, Santa Monica, click here.
- Shahzia Sikander, link for PBS Art 21 series (12:29 minutes), click here.
- Rebekah Bogard, click here.