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Besides, the Phillipses—like others at the opening—already owned a Nguyen piece: his Rapture, a sculpture of a nude man and woman floating around each other in some form of ecstasy. They'd moved it around the house; it was now in their bedroom. Hanh Tran, a consultant to a wellness company, was another owner. She'd purchased a Nguyen bas-relief for around $2,000 at a gallery opening he'd had the previous Saturday in San Diego County. And because her brother had been a high school classmate of Nguyen's in Vietnam, she'd driven up from Solana Beach to show her support.
"When people like art, they don't want to think about the money. It speaks to you," Tran said. What did his art say to her? "These sculptures are very solid but he uses them to imbue feeling," she added. "The shape is so exciting physically. I would think he's like a little Michelangelo, a little Rodin."
Clad in a handsome brown tweed suit, yellow shirt and striped yellow tie, Nguyen took that kind of praise easily, migrating around the room, taking time for everyone and posing for pictures with those who asked.
"People always say, 'I want to be successful in art,' but to be successful in art in this country is to make money," he'd said in July, sounding apologetic but somehow at peace with being a little Michelangelo, a little Rodin—and a little Rockefeller. The gallery people said that was part of his appeal.
"His work is very spiritual, so I think it just naturally invokes a feeling in you when you're around it," Miranda Gallery administrator Vanessa Smrekar told me. "It seems like a lot of people are very impressed. They're drawn to it naturally. He's not some bourgie stuck up person. He's humble and he's been through so much." And not so long ago, he walked through Vietnam to get to Cambodia, carrying a bag of human teeth.
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