The LA-based painter’s exquisite skewing of Renaissance and biblical scenes at Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London
From a flurry of flecks in tempera and oil, England’s patron saint emerges in drag. A panel painting by Julien Nguyen, St George and the Dragon (2017) depicts an attenuated female figure pouting in a red coat. Hips thrust to the side, she theatrically points her sword at a red-eyed demon. Her setting suggests that she is not of this world. A meticulous play of geometries and hues creates the illusion of a steel recess, which hovers somewhere between trompe l’oeil sculpted niche and spacecraft accessory. In spite of her flouncing pose, the figure’s facial expression is notably withdrawn. Hanging her head and looking askance, she appears disillusioned by the fantasy role she is playing. Bored beyond belief.
The spirit of drag seeps into every corner of ‘Ex Forti Dulcedo’, Nguyen’s first exhibition with Stuart Shave/Modern Art. Dainty millennials play sacred figures from the Western canon in archetypal poses: a sunken-eyed gamin impersonates St John baptizing the messiah; a floppy-haired youth bears Christ’s stigmata on his palm; and the hallowed infants from Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John (c.1499–1500) are reimagined as two long-limbed teens. Futuristic designs eddy into Nguyen’s quasi-religious scenes: a metal disk hovers over Christ’s Baptism (2018) like a gaming icon; a glowing red grid overhangs the Flagellation (2018); and vast sweeps of steel and marble frame the Virgin’s Annunciation (2017) in an austere architectural setting. In the midst of all this cross-pollination, icons are rendered incomplete: the adolescent figures of Christ and John tail off into rough surface markings, as if their sprouting bodies were outgrowing the narrative.
By subtly warping religious iconography, Nguyen plays with the process by which one thing comes to signify another. This is dramatized in his depiction of the Annunciation – the archetypal moment Mary’s body is imbued with divine meaning. Depicted at the apex of a monumental enclosure, the Virgin raises a hand to an angel kneeling in the distance. Echoing the smooth geometries of her surroundings, her head is portrayed as a flawless sphere, her face a schema of thick swirls. Deprived of expression, the Virgin almost seems burdened by the rigid pictorial order that’s been imposed on her. Other areas of the surface increase this sense of tension. The figures’ hands are patches of scratchy markings, the space between them a stretch of empty ground. By leaving portions of the work unfinished, Nguyen unmoors the figures from their places in the biblical narrative and leaves them floating in an ambiguous space. The story once preceded the image; now the image precedes the story.
Slipping out of their conventional meanings, Nguyen’s figures seem rebellious. A teenage Christ nods his head and shrugs his hands up on a crucifix in the style of an emo rapper greeting his fans on stage (‘I can take this’), while an introspective Virgin sheds luminous tears, eyes aglow, as if bemoaning her responsibility in the salvation story. And a melancholic Christ is haunted by a Chinese dragon in the Flagellation – a mise en scène of some inner battle. Androgynous, inflammatory and highly eroticized, Nguyen’s figures pick up on the taboo undercurrents of conventional religious depictions.
Kye Semper Solus (2018) is perhaps autobiographical: a long, statuesque figure is depicted sitting dreamily at an easel. White calligraphic markings wind whimsically up his arm and face, which rhyme with a pen portrayed in his hand. In contrast with the works in the rest of the show, the perspective is off-kilter, with the lines of the easel trailing obliquely into a murky background. Isolated in an indefinite space, the figure might be seen as an allegory for Nguyen’s own process of skewing conventional forms. Ex Forti Dulcedo. Out of strength, sweetness.
Julien Nguyen: Ex Forti Dulcedo runs at Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London, until 27 June.
Main image: Julien Nguyen, The Annunciation, 2017, oil on aluminium panel, 56 × 183 cm. Courtesy: © the artist and Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London; photograph: Robert Glowacki