As a child, a recent immigrant to the U.S. and not yet fluent in English, Duy Huynh (pronounced Yee Wun) expressed himself and attracted friends by drawing cartoons and comics. While no longer working in the comic book medium, “I feel like my work is sort of an extension of it because I’m still creating characters and thinking about narratives to go along with [them],” he says. “It’s not Superman or Spider-Man, visually, but there is definitely some fantasy [and] maybe supernatural aspects to it.”
Huynh adds, “It’s not necessarily logical at times, but that’s kind of the fun part of painting: You can do whatever you want with it.” The artist will display about a dozen paintings as part of the group exhibition Reverie, which opens at Blue Spiral 1 on Thursday, Sept. 6.
Based in Charlotte, Huynh co-owns the Lark & Key Gallery with his wife, Sandy Snead. “Unfortunately for her, she handles all the not-so-fun aspects of the business, and I get to paint,” Huynh jokes. It was Snead, a jeweler as well as a curator and gallerist, who had a booth at Kress Emporium in Asheville and brought Huynh’s work to the attention of Blue Spiral 1 owner John Cram.
“I didn’t necessarily choose Charlotte,” the artist says of his base, “but it grew on me.”
Huynh’s family fled Vietnam when he was 5; they were among the wave of refugees known as boat people. “We endured a great deal of hardship just to get over here. We were stranded in the ocean for several days. We were brought to different refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines,” Huynh said on a 2012 AroundCarolina video. “At one point I thought, ‘This is, like, the worst family vacation ever.’”
The family settled in Southern California for 13 years and eventually relocated to Charlotte “for a change of pace,” Huynh says. That’s how he came to call the North Carolina city home. “People often ask me why don’t I go to New York or bigger cities with more art that’s very established. I kind of like that [Charlotte] is not as established because I feel like I can be part of the growth and the history of it.” Plus, Charlotte does have an increasing Vietnamese community.
But, while Huynh hopes to visit his native country again some day, he says he doesn’t feel compelled to represent his heritage in his paintings. “I want people to see the work for itself, whatever message I’m trying too get across in each piece, rather than people looking at the work and saying, ‘That’s a Vietnamese artist talking about his life,’” he explains. “I’ve been painting for 20 years or so, so there are several pieces that deal with certain aspects of my experience as an immigrant and as a refugee and the sense of displacement.”
For example, boats are a recurring image on Huynh’s canvases, as are solo figures. Of the latter he points out: “That’s how I always start with composing a piece or a narrative — I think of a character and then I think of what … I want people to relate to with that character.” It’s more about a storyline than an expression of isolation or solitude. “I kind of see it as a sign of freedom,” he says.
Huynh’s work is dreamy and evocative. He’s returned many times to the image of a woman painting on her own wings. Women traipse across the canvases in comically pitched hairdos that mimic lines of windblown trees. Steampunk-reminiscent figures picnic while floating among a flock of hot air balloons. Women wear dresses of flowers and butterflies or perform circus feats while cranes — another repeating image — swoop nearby. Men play banjos and pianos and hoist umbrellas. They drift over oceans and across fields. In one work, a man falls backward off a ladder toward a canvas painted with a pair of oversized hands poised to catch him.
That sense of whimsy has its roots, at least in part, in Huynh’s immigrant experience. “When I was trying to learn English, I would take everything very literally,” he says. “When I’d learn a new word or phrase, I’d visualize what it was. For the longest time, I didn’t know what a corndog was, so I’d picture a little dog with corn.”
Instead of being embarrassed by those early misunderstandings, he applies that sensibility — and the resulting visual malapropisms — to his work. “There’s a painting I did called ‘Seahorse Odyssey,’” Huynh says. “I pictured an actual horse as a navy pilot or seaman on a boat.”
He adds, “It’s kind of silly, but it can open doors to more thought-provoking [ideas], as well.”
WHAT: Reverie exhibition featuring worked by Duy Huynh, Jim Connell, Eric Serritella, and Kirsten Stingle
WHERE: Showcase Gallery at Blue Spiral 1, 38 Biltmore Ave., bluespiral1.com
WHEN: Thursday, Sept. 6-Friday, Nov. 9. Opening reception Sept. 6, 5-8 p.m.