A Little Michelangelo, a Little Rodin, a Little Rockefeller

Sculptor Tuan Nguyens long journey to arrive

If you really wanted to see Mission Viejo sculptor Tuan Nguyen's latest series of ethereal bronze sculptures and bas-reliefs, there was no worse place to be than the first night of his show at Miranda Gallery in Laguna Beach. But then, art openings always hurt the ones they love. This wasn't tragic—this was art, not 9/11—but it was sad that Nguyen's vivid life story was reduced to a few sentences on a print-out, and that getting a look at his work meant going elbow-to-elbow with old ladies in sequined cowboy hats and men in blue blazers.

Nguyen, 43, uses only his first name professionally, which is a bit of an affectation. But he wields patina—a closely guarded mix of chemicals he brushes onto his pieces after they're poured, baked and cooled—like the master they say he is. Never heard of him? He's most famous for designing the Westminster Vietnam War Memorial—though not the tile portion of it, which is cracking—and he's recently been collected by the White House Presidential Art Collection. Somehow, he is able to make bronze look like polished granite—and then sell large chunks of it for upwards of $20,000. (It doesn't hurt his success that his most frequent subjects are hot naked people—one upon which we can all agree.) "Patina," Nguyen said at the opening, "is an amazing thing if you know how to apply it. White could be brown; black could be red. And after you wax it, the true colors come out." The whole evening was like that—as if his life was somehow bifurcated in 1988 upon his arrival in the states.

His arrival had every bit the drama of so many refugee journeys. But unlike them, he's descended from royalty—a descent that landed him in a concentration camp after the Communists took over Vietnam. Through his art and the past 20 years, he's achieved something of an ascension. It's remarkable and rather incongruous that the man some now consider a blue-chip artist spent a year in that concentration camp, sculpting busts of his fellow inmates from clay scooped out of his cell floor. And after they let him go, he walked to Cambodia—a journey he says took more than three weeks—and from there was passed off to Thailand and the Philippines. Nguyen's agent, Daniel Winn, can recite his client's past by rote—but even he still finds it interesting that when Nguyen left Vietnam his father gave his son a bag of teeth that native Vietnamese had collected from the bodies of dead American soldiers missing in action. Nguyen carried that bag with him for months wondering what it meant until he reached Thailand and gave it to the United Nations people. And learned his father's fantastic story was all true.

"I was in refugee camps for many years, but it made my life so rich," Nguyen had said over lunch, when I interviewed him in July. "If you think you suffer, there are so many suffering out there."

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The mood at his opening was celebratory—a variation of which was the title for one of his limited edition sculptures: Celebration, a graceful triptych of three smooth bronze women exploding upwards and playing instruments. Their bodies were young and lithe—not at all zaftig like the old masters would have done—and they'd look great in your foyer. The piece on display was one of 100 cast, and the red adhesive dot on the wall next to it meant it was sold.

"You can't have it. It's mine!" said Ingrid Phillips of Lake Forest, eagerly relating what Winn had told her each figure signified. "Well, the trumpet represents creation, and then the flute is life, and then the violin is the afterlife." And the price, $19,500? That seemed to represent a deal: "On Monday morning," gallery owner Shawn Miranda told Phillips, "that price is going up to $24,500."

Ingrid and her husband Dave seemed to have bought at the right time, even though it wasn't about that. They were investing in a cancer vaccine the University of South Alabama is working up, she said—and saving lives was more important than getting art for a rock bottom price.

"We don't do this for an investment," Ingrid Phillips said, laughing. "Can you imagine what the royalties on a cancer vaccine would be? The royalties on Viagra aren't too bad, but on a cancer vaccine?" When I called her back that Monday, Phillips said they hadn't bought the piece after all: they'd tried to low-ball the price and the gallery wouldn't budge.

"I know galleries have to stay in business, but again I know how much things are marked up. I was trying to negotiate a price," Phillips said that Monday. She was a little unhappy. "Yeah, well, we did come home and take a look where we were going to put it. And we just decided we're working on a far greater project." Maybe it was best to move on.

"You know, what I find is that once you tell somebody the market value of a work of art they get very distracted by that number," said Orange County Museum of Art curator Elizabeth Armstrong. "It becomes all about that price tag, and so you no longer think that you're looking at a work of art. And Andy Warhol long ago painted that dollar sign to make exactly that point."

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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.

TUAN AT MIRANDA GALLERY, HOTEL LAGUNA, 417 S. COAST HWY., LAGUNA BEACH, (949) 497-4491; WWW.MIRANDAGALLERIES.COM. OPEN MON.-THURS., 10 A.M.-6:30 P.M.; FRI.-SAT., 10 A.M.-9 P.M.; SUN., 11 A.M.-7 P.M. THROUGH NOVEMBER. FREE.

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