Sharpening pencils has long been a sacred ritual for Khue Nguyen. It first began at university, where a particularly ruthless teacher demanded properly sharpened pencils. “If the pencil was incorrectly sharpened, she would break the tip of the pencil and walk away,” Khue recalls. “The point she wanted to teach us was if we are not serious about our tools, that meant we were not serious about our art.”
Now, the daily ritual serves a different purpose. “If I keep breaking the tips of my pencils, it means I am not calm and focused enough, and I am not ready to draw.” These days, Khue certainly has reason to take his practice seriously.
Art ran in the family for the Nguyens, and Khue grew up surrounded by his father’s sketches of soldiers from a nearby army camp, alongside his mother’s watercolours on silk.
However, the reality of his upbringing was less picture-perfect, and Khue arrived on Australian shores from Vietnam in 1988 as a refugee. “I am psychologically damaged by the way I was brought up,” he admits openly.
“Years of living with depression, inability to express my views and my sexuality because of living in a Communist country, plus the Vietnam War all made a huge impact on my life.” Fast forward to the present, and Khue divides his work into three distinct strands: lyrical abstraction; the human body and gestural communication through dance; and the Vietnamese diaspora and other issues relating to identity. “I think I have an obsession with the human body,” he admits, finding inspiration in the most unlikely of places – the gym. Amidst the sweat and strain of other gym-goers is now where his interest in anatomy is sustained.
Khue’s attention to anatomical detail and refined technique are evidence not only of five years of rigorous training at Ho Chi Minh City’s University of Fine Arts, but also a profound appreciation for old European masters like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. “My intention is to lead my viewers to look beyond the physical body, to get involved with my subject’s mood in that moment,” he explains.
The human form is rendered in all of its simultaneous strength and vulnerability in Khue’s work, and a self portrait earned him the honour of being an Archibald Prize finalist in 2010.
Despite the struggles of growing up in a politically turbulent climate, the turmoil of suppressed sexuality, and mental health challenges, Khue has retained tenderness. With a sensitivity to life’s vagaries, he excels at translating a poetic vision of human beauty and fragility, one sharpened pencil at a time.
Featured artwork: Khue Nguyen, Variation No. 1. Digital, 100 x 180cm. Courtesy: the artist