Wesleyan Professor’s Art on Display in London Gallery

Editorial StaffApril 3, 20246min
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By Anya Kisicki ’22

Dante, dinosaurs, and geopolitics mingled at the opening of Assistant Professor of Art Tammy Nguyen’s newest art exhibition, A Comedy for Mortals: Purgatorio, at the Lehmann Maupin’s London gallery on March 12. Nguyen, a 2023 Guggenheim Fellow in fine arts, masterfully weaves disparate concepts together to create a new world of meaning that plays out on massive canvases, works on paper, and the intricate pages of her artbooks.

A Comedy for Mortals is the second installment in an ongoing trilogy of exhibitions by Nguyen. Each iteration of A Comedy for Mortals maps geopolitical themes onto Dante’s Divine Comedy in a cacophonic collection of layers.

“I like to create sort of a conceptual playground for me to work through the process of painting printmaking and artist book making. In this case, the grand analogy is that Dante and Virgil’s ascent up mount purgatory is analogous to a mining expedition into the Grasberg mine,” Nguyen said during the exhibit’s opening of her process. Dante’s Divine Comedy explores Dante’s journey to heaven, guided by a fictitious version of the Roman poet Virgil in three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.

Several Wesleyan students and alumni gathered around Nguyen in the crowded gallery space for the event. A portion of the traveling students had come directly from Middletown for the exhibit over spring break. They were a long way from the Wesleyan Printshop, but their presence at the opening speaks to Nguyen’s uncanny capacity to gather people in previously unimagined spaces, whether those characters be Dante and former President Franklin D. Roosevelt in a tropical hellscape or a cluster of Wesleyan studio art students in a swanky London gallery.

“It’s so satisfying to see Tammy’s vision come together after the last few months we spent in the studio,” said Holly Greene ’22, who works as Nguyen’s lead artist assistant. “It’s incredible to be here in London, seeing the art up on gallery walls after months of seeing them splayed out over sawhorses in the studio.

An artistic vision informed by poetry and history

Nguyen’s A Comedy for Mortals borrows Dante’s tripartite structure and turns it on its head, creating an inverted parallel between an ascent through purgatory to reach heaven and a descent through the Grasberg Mine in Papua, Indonesia, to reach the reserves of gold and copper deep in the earth. Nguyen brings the mine’s contentious history of colonial ownership to the surface by layering images of the mine taken by NASA with SOS signals.

Nguyen constructed this analogy in A Comedy for Mortals: Purgatorio by layering depictions of Dante and Virgil under and over depictions of the Indonesian Bandung Conference of 1955, where Asian and African countries gathered to promote Afro-Asian collective interests in the wake of British neo-colonialism of the continents. These images are embedded into a lush multimedia landscape filled with ferns, dinosaurs, and weapons of war, creating a world that collapses the time and space that separates Dante’s narrative from the colonial legacies of the Cold War.

“In Dante’s imagination of Purgatory, Dante and Virgil come out of hell and arrive at the shores of mount purgatory on Easter Sunday. Already, the image of Dante and Virgil arriving on those shores speaks to so many histories and narratives that I’ve been interested in for a really long time. Ideas about diaspora, exodus, migration,” Nguyen said.

The creatures clambering around Nguyen’s paintings expand the conceptual playground of Purgatorio. Luna Moths carry the moon on their wings, subverting the rules of physical time and space. “In this world, the sun is always kissing the cold air of the night,” Nguyen explains. “And moths thrive in the night, yet they’re always gravitating toward light.” These insects animate the liminal sphere of purgatory by fluttering between day and night. Prints taken from dinosaur fossils at Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, Conn., further collapse the notion of time when placed alongside images from the 14th and 20th centuries.

The coexistence of Luna moths, dinosaur fossils, and modern weapons of war empower Nguyen’s audience to glean patterns of yearning and displacement across time and space. A Comedy for Mortals: Purgatorio invites viewers to romp around in a world of conceptual complexity between heaven and hell, past and present, here and there, us and them.

Inferno is the first iteration of Comedy for Mortals. It opened last Spring at Lehmann Maupin’s Gallery in Seoul, South Korea. Nguyen’s final iteration in her trilogy of Dante-inspired exhibitions, A Comedy for Mortals: Paradiso, will open in the spring of 2025 at Lehmann Maupin’s Manhattan Gallery.