FRANKLIN MELENDEZ Robert Crumb once noted: “You don’t have to be a Fundamentalist Christian to be interested in the Bible. It’s really a fascinating mythology.” You go a step further for in the biblical you recognize the foundational micro-dramas and ur-narratives that have propelled the Western mythos in all its destructive glory. This holds true not just for the source scripture itself, but its expanded image universe as propagated from the Quattrocento on: the pictorial weaponized as holy archetype. This might be in part what animates your fascination with the period: the suturing of these origin myths onto their pictorial modes of dissemination until the two become inextricable (or are made so by the Renaissance masters). Your most recent solo exhibition at Modern Art / Stuart Shave in London, entitled “Ex Forti Dulcedo,” showed how your exploration is neither appropriation nor critique, but something much more subtle and profound: a re-staging that seeks to bring into relief these lingering structures as they inflect our current socio-political realities. This is also the germinating point for your latest undertaking, a solo at New York’s Swiss Institute, that tackles more recent histories as well as the artist’s first live-action film. This project is a full departure from painting. How did it come about?
JULIEN NGUYEN I had re-watched Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995) and was looking for some clips on the Internet to refresh my memory. In this particular scene, Nixon (played by Anthony Hopkins) visits then-Director of the CIA Richard Helms (played by Sam Waterson) at his headquarters in Langley. Leveraging one another in a terse power struggle, what begins as a strategic negotiation of funding and rank escalates into an ominous rumination on geopolitics, hubris, mortality, and corruption. Waterson’s office is filled with orchids, and it ends with his eyes going black as he recites The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats.
Watching this, the idea of the work came to me immediately. I had the sense that I could be inside one of my own paintings, and that if I replaced the actors with beautiful and eager young American men—with the look and energy that they would convey – and have them recite the complicated and disturbing dialogue, that there I might be able to make a film of my own. The camera was the only way in which I could convey this feeling to an audience. A painting of it wouldn’t make sense, and I was interested in the dialectical and formal relationship that recreating a fictional scene of a possible historic event in a new film would create. I thought there was something similar in this to how I sometimes take figures from the Renaissance and repurpose them for my own use. Or that it would be similar to the strategy of all the various versions of Shakespeare put to film—the text is the same, but the window-dressing changes to suit the time and interests of those putting on the play.
I thought that it could be of service to highlight this similarity through another form, and see what it might mean to look at one’s own life and it’s relationship to history through this intimate prism of work. This is mannerism (not a look, not a feeling, but a strategy)—a natural efflorescence or a mutation of the canon towards the establishment of new ends. It was misunderstood as a corruption because the work was terminated alongside the feudal independence of the Italian states. It is misunderstood now as aesthetic subversion. Mannerism is a period, properly understood. A concrete historical reality. I think this film could hold that description, I do not think the paintings can.
FM You underscore a key point: that the filmic has always played a role in your conception of painting. What about formally? What were some of the challenges of shifting from a relatively solitary studio practice to something so collaborative, piecemeal and public?
JN When I was given the opportunity to do a show at Swiss Institute, I saw it as a chance to make something that I would normally not be able to with the limited hands, skills, and resources that I am allowed with the paintings. To make something that illustrates that the concerns of my previous work extend beyond the individual objects, and that those objects are part of a larger attempt to process the realities of my life and of my position within the world as it relates to the civilization to which I am born. With a film and with this specific subject matter, I can show that my concern is as much with history itself as it is with any specific image from or moment within it.
In order to accomplish any of this, the work needed to be made with a level of technical facility beyond what I could do myself with friends and a camera in my hand, and in this I was blessed to work with the brilliant cinematographer, Sebastian Mlynarski and the production team he brought to the set. This needed to be something that existed halfway between the logic of conceptual video art and commercial production, that bridged the social, political, and economic structures implicated in each of those forms.