Return to Articles


November 11 - December 24, 2004 at Stephen Cohen Gallery, West Hollywood

by Jody Zellen

"Gesture #95," 2004,
silver gelatin print.

"Gesture #63," 2004,
silver gelatin print.

"Untitled #2," 2002, tea-toned gelatin
silver and chromogenic collage, 10 x 8".

"Untitled #25," 2002, tea-toned gelatin
silver and chromogenic collage, 10 x 8".
Han Nguyen, a San Diego based photographer who was born in Vietnam and moved to the U.S. in 1975, exhibits two new series of work. Rather than document the world around him, Nguyen creates his images in the studio. His subject for the last ten years has been the human body and the various ways that it can be isolated, fragmented, and manipulated through photographic documentation. In his Gesture suite, begun in 1997, Nguyen photographed his hands against a black background using a pinhole camera. The resulting images were enigmatic and mysterious pictures depicting hands dancing, reaching, grasping, and clutching the air or one another. These works are visually engaging, while also referencing significant gestures in the history of art like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. They are also deeply indebted to photographic history and the body studies of Edward Weston or Alfred Steiglitz.

Nguyen’s works take on numerous photographic genres. He moves from series to series; making abstractions of his entire body, collages from those abstractions or even fabricating objects to be photographed as he did for his 1992 images that resemble the interior of Brancusi’s studio. For his current exhibition Nguyen juxtaposes new works from the Gesture series with color photographic collages in which he reassembles body parts in such a way as to suggest surrealist sculptures.

Many of these new Gesture photographs are tondos that draw your eye to the center rather than the edges. These circular works also isolate the gesture. In Gesture #55 the right hand occupies the entire circle. The hand recedes into the distance, creating a skewed perspective. In Gesture #63 Nguyen isolates two hands in the center of the frame. The fingers are interlocked, pulling away from each other. While close-ups of hands figure prominently in many of the Gesture studies, some also include the body. Even when it is only the hand that is represented, the works are about the relationship of a gesture to the entire body.

There are numerous ways the body can be depicted. What the camera sees and presents is one method. The Gesture series tends toward the dark and serious. The small format and black and white presentation, in addition to his use of pinhole camera, toned imagery and self-portrait subject matter locate them in the realm of traditional photography. Nguyen’s collages leave that world behind. While they do relate to Man Ray or Max Ernst’s use of collage, they are rooted in Nguyen’s personal vision. In the collages Nguyen assembles colored fragments of body parts, making towers or sculptures out of the different pieces. While it is not always possible to make out what body part has become what shape, the works are not violent or associative. Rather they are humorous constructions. In Untitled #2, for example, a picture of a belly button is cut into an elliptical shape that is collaged on top of an organic skin colored form that sits upon a curved base. The body parts become a sculpture that is set on a dark background against white walls. Similarly in Untitled #25 Nguyen assembles body parts into a sculptural form, this time creating tear drop shapes containing nipples that hang from a tree-like form.

While both series of Nguyen’s new works are focused on the body and created mostly in the studio, they are vastly different in terms of their aesthetics and approach. It could be said that the two series move Nguyen’s oeuvre in different directions, yet perhaps through this juxtaposition it becomes evident that they are two sides of the body in space and the numerous ways the human form can be represented through a photographic medium.