Framed oil painting with gold labeling
Beirut, 1983, from the Translatio Imperii series, 2019 Oil on paper, vintage frame, acrylic, brass 7 x 8.5 inches. Image Courtesy of the Artist and Patricia Sweetow Gallery, San Francisco

Isabel Smith ’24 (She/Her), Staff Writer

Liên Trương’s artist talk on September 9th, 2021, about her exhibition Liên Trương: From the Earth Rise Radiant Beings, was a whirlwind. I furiously took notes as she weaved together histories, art styles, and conceptions of war and life and loss. It was almost haunting to be surrounded by the years of collected stories of oppression, suffering, and resistance that are present in Trương’s works. There is a collective spirit within them. They transcend imperialist narratives and speak to transnational identities—especially ones of Asian and Asian-American experiences—that have been erased, suppressed, and redefined over and over again.

Trương traces cross-cultural genealogies in her exhibition and said that much of her work “responds to modes of landscape and narrative, and for [her] practice [she’s] really interested in how each has been integral to the other in the creation of visual mythologies of the American Narrative—who is centered in those stories, the bodies that have been kept in the periphery.” She argued that the traditional idea of ‘landscape’ in Western contemporary art (with rules of linear and atmospheric perspective) is not an objective depiction of a scene. Instead, landscapes construct a colonized space. They force ideals of nationalism and territorial conquest onto nature; painting is claiming. Trương invoked numerous examples: Romantic tradition, 18th and 19th-century British and American artists like Thomas Hearne and Thomas Moran, British Aesthetic theory, and Thomas Jefferson. She cited so many that it seemed unbelievable that they all could somehow all be featured in a cohesive collection, but Trương’s exhibition achieves the impossible.

As the United States’ global power increased, art became a military and cultural weapon. American Abstract Expressionism was seen as opposing Soviet Socialist realism during the Cold War. Americans weren’t bound by the rules of realism. Instead, America and American art epitomized freedom; Americans were free. Trương’s emphasis on art as propaganda—not only in what the art portrays, but also in how it portrays it—was striking.

The sky is at the center of the Western genre of landscape Trương described. In the West, the sky connotes peace, reverence, and the ever-objective capital-S Science. Liên Trương and Hồng-An Trương’s collaborative video in the exhibition, The Sky Is Not Sacred, turns this on its head. The video shows clip after clip (taken from the U.S. National Archives) of premeditated violence in the sky carried out by the US military in the 20th century. In contrast, the English landscape painter John Constable’s words echo over the footage of airstrikes, claiming that, “in unending beauty the blue sky spans the earth” and that “the sky is the source of light in nature and governs everything.” This voiceover serves as a reminder of Western perceptions and understandings of the sky in relation to the footage; the video reveals the sky as a space of war, of coldness and darkness, and careless, brutal power grabs. The juxtaposition is so precise that it left me sitting there, speechless, in the darkness of the gallery. 

Trương’s artist talk brought these works, as well as the others in the exhibition, to life. Engaging in dialogue with artists about their art is so important: it allows us to learn the artist’s process of making art, both physically and mentally, provides the opportunity to ask questions, and engages the art through conversation. Together, the works create their own conceptual cosmos. Trương paints in vivid color, especially blacks and pinks, and she explained the process of developing your own cohesive palette and creating art that is meaningful to you. The exhibition feels like a heavily researched lucid dream, one you wake up from having learned something. You walk outside, you look up at the glittering sky, and you think: the sky is not sacred. 

Liên Trương: From the Earth Rise Radiant Beings is in the Van Every Gallery of Davidson College in the Visual Arts Center until October 03, 2021. A recording of the artist talk is available courtesy of the Davidson College Art Galleries. 

Isabel Smith ‘24 (she/her) is an undeclared major from St Augustine, Florida. She can be reached