Worlds collide in “Tammy Nguyen,” both in the artist’s eponymous, first-ever solo museum exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art, and in herself. Nguyen, born in San Francisco in 1984, bundles a litany of transnational anxieties into her work; her parents were among the mass exodus of refugees fleeing Vietnam in the aftermath of the US withdrawal in 1975. For the ICA, Nguyen has produced all new work that crackles with the rough confluence of her feet-in-two-worlds identity; it lives spectacularly, hypnotically, with the frictions of a past and present bound together forever.
Nguyen’s touchstone here is the most American of icons, Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose woodsy spirituality spawned generations of utopia-minded flakiness, and nowhere so much as in New England. Central to Nguyen’s project was Emerson’s 1836 essay “Nature,” where he makes his most ardent case: That nature itself is the face of the divine, and human solitude in its embrace is the means to transcendence.
Nguyen’s portrait of Emerson is the show’s entry point; it’s notably devotional, a great man in regal repose swathed in robes, as though on a throne. But oh, there are complications. Thick foliage creeps from all directions, an oppressive garland of tropical fronds in electric, icey aquamarine; veins of blood-purple snake throughout. Emerson, a stony, muck-brown figure enveloped in shadow, has the look of the undead.
Nose up close and you’ll see a string of tiny, glittering helicopters flitting past his collarbone, while inky silhouettes of palm trees root and sprout in his arm like an infection. Idyllic, this is not. Emerson seems all but strangled to death by his beloved nature, and interred as food.
Let’s draw the obvious — too obvious? — parallel, of American idealism translating poorly to other cultures, though that’s never stopped us. The United States has busily exported its one-size-fits-all approach to nation-building for so long, and with such catastrophic effect, that it’s easy to forget the good intentions behind it. (The Vietnam War, if you need reminding, was a Cold War proxy for the good versus evil, democracy versus communism trope the US is still stuck on, as the Russia-Ukraine war makes abundantly clear.) The Emerson portrait is a stunningly successful work; it manages to honor an ideal while undercutting the mechanics of idealism (theory, meet practice). Its claustrophobic confines feature both resplendent, symphonic color and form, and an atmosphere of choking menace.
Wild overgrowth is the symbolic trope in all Nguyen’s big paintings here, making her intensely layered compositions dizzyingly bottomless; they captivate, stagger, and engulf. Her narratives are not subtle: “Chúa Kitô Vua,” 2023, a representation of the giant statue of Jesus on the cross on the top of Mount Nho in Southern Vietnam, is swarmed with overgrowth in bleak tones of blue-gray. In “Ngô Đình Diệm,” 2023, Diệm, the South Vietnamese president assassinated in a coup d’etat in 1963, is downcast while a straight-backed American diplomat looms over him, all but swallowed by a jungle cast in tones of glacial blue. (The US withdrew its support after Diem’s repression of the Buddhist South Vietnamese majority culminated in the infamous self-immolation of a Buddhist monk during a 1963 protest in Saigon. Diem was imprisoned and murdered by his own military.)
The cultural collisions matter: Each piece is flecked with tiny gilded elements — the choppers, peaked-hat farm laborers, miniature globes. In Nguyen’s work here, Emerson’s idealism runs parallel to American infiltrations into the Vietnamese body politic. They are insidious, like a virus, an apt parallel. As the war reached its peak, the US led a land reform program in South Vietnam meant to bolster support for democratic ideals — notions of land and nature subjugated as a weapon of war. Starting in 1970, the US all but wholly funded the return of government-expropriated lands to independent farmers. Amid the devastation of the war itself, the program failed, and after the fall of Saigon in 1975, the communist regime reclaimed all lands for the state.
That’s a lot to pack into a suite of paintings, but Nguyen accomplishes plenty. The overwhelming sense of imperialism’s chaos — its naive ambitions, its oversimplifications, its ravages — thrive in the visual tangles she creates. Two panoramic works complete the parallel. The first, “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” 2023, is four vibrant panels conflating Vietnamese farm labor with William Barnes Wollens’s painting “The Battle of Lexington, 19 April 1775,” 1910, and with Daniel Chester French’s 1874 statue of a Minuteman abandoning his plow for war.
The timing of the exhibition could hardly be better, with President Biden returning from a successful diplomatic mission to strengthen ties with communist-led unified Vietnam just this week — a happy-ish coda. But the valorization of the American Revolution stands starkly next to its failure to export those shining ideals of freedom a world away. Combing the US National Archives, Nguyen found the passport photos of three Vietnamese men who worked on the land reform project halted by US withdrawal; they infuse another broad panorama here with bleak, stone-faced anxiety, appearing in close-up against a backdrop of idyllic scenes of an American mountainscape, a summit they would never reach.
The show does some leavening, too. Nguyen is one of those artists in love with both materials and the materials of transmission. She operates an independent publishing imprint, Passenger Pigeon Press, which makes and distributes “Martha’s Quarterly,” a handmade journal of art and ideas to its subscribers, and “Public Domain,” an ongoing project to search public archives and extract elements for public distribution in handsome bound journals.
Nguyen has a masterful way with books and prints. Where her paintings are certain and suffocating, her works on paper here, installed in corners or at far ends of her panoramas, are delicate and mysterious, softly and enrapturingly beautiful. They use similar ideas — also cobbled from materials from the National Archives, they include land-reform propaganda spread freely through Vietnam by its US sponsors — but in less blunt form. On delicate hanji paper, she works in collage, woodblock printing, and hand stamping; the results feel more like suggestive echoes than grave declarations.
At the center of the space, four big bookworks are placed under a vitrine (a theme of the exhibition, oblique at best, is the four seasons.) Together and alone, they’re wonders — brilliantly composed of disparate materials with a seductive array of patterns and textures, each begs to be read, examined, touched (alas, no). I saw in them not just art, but a calling. I subscribed to “Martha’s Quarterly” then and there.
At Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 25 Harbor Shore Drive. Through Jan. 28. 617-478-3100, www.icaboston.org