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An artist of perfectly indistinct vision

Author: Arts and Letters


Notre Dame artist Rev. Martin Lam Nguyen, C.S.C., had been stirred by the scriptural readings at Mass that morning and said so to his friend. “Did you hear the passage from the Book of Wisdom? That’s what I’m hoping to get at.”

The passage was “For they search busily among his works, but are distracted by what they see, because the things seen are fair. But again, not even these are pardonable. For if they so far succeeded in knowledge that they could speculate about the world, how did they not more quickly find its Lord?” (Wisdom 13:7-9)

The words did indeed seem arrestingly on target as Father Nguyen patiently, and with a meticulous attention that was difficult to distinguish from reverence, affixed another of his finely etched graphite drawings to a wall of the O’Shaughnessy Galleries West in the Snite Museum of Art. It was a portrait, drawn in exhaustive detail, from a photograph of a hauntingly beautiful 5-year old girl. Father Nguyen had drawn 364 others as well as this one, each from a different photograph taken every day of the year from 2001 to 2002. The completed exhibition, “Face to Face: Drawings by Rev. Martin Nguyen, C.S.C.,” will run from Nov. 25 to Dec. 23.

The immensity and intricacy of his most recent project will certainly impress but will not surprise anyone familiar with Father Nguyen’s earlier works, particularly his equally elaborate and absorbing “Mountain Waits.” A vast montage of 3,000 rice paper flags bearing ink and graphite images of the mountainous islands of Ha Long Bay, that artwork, completed in 1999, is a haunting remembrance of Father Nguyen’s last glimpse of his native Vietnam, from which he and his family had fled on a fishing boat some 20 years earlier.

Like “Mountain Waits,” which the artist conceived while on retreat in a Tokyo zendo (or Buddhist meditation hall), “Face to Face” emerges from and evokes contemplative prayer. An appreciative reader of Thomas Merton, Father Nguyen enthusiastically approves a passage in the “Secular Journals,” in which Merton insists that “looking at a picture demands penetration, understanding meditation. If people looked at good pictures more, they would learn more about meditation, and if they meditated more, they would learn more about looking at pictures…Good pictures imitate eternity.”

And the 365 drawings of the same little girl’s face from 365 moments of the same year do indeed justify one critic’s description of “Face to Face” as a “graphic litany.” The rich variety within the repetition is striking, and Father Nguyen has taken pains to reproduce the imperfections in each photograph. These are detailed and realistic depictions of photographic depictions of an unmistakably present person.

“Instant imaging is increasingly available in abundance,” Father Lam said. “We still need to have first-hand experience. I use the long process of drawing, like prayer, like contemplation, to engage simple images.”

Among other artists whose work he admires are the Fauvist painter Georges Rouault, particularly the 1933 oil painting, “The Holy Face,” and Chuck Close, whose hyperrealistic portraits are as exhaustively detailed as his own.

“But my work is very different from Chuck Close’s beautiful portrait paintings,” Father Nguyen said. "The format might be similar, but intentions are quite different. I am not too excited with drama or abstract ideas or concepts. There are important issues in my works but the issues belong to daily realities.

“Naturally, prayer, contemplation, and the spiritual dimensions of events, realities and faces capture my fascination. I want to create images that engage the viewers similarly. In ‘Face to Face,’ what is at issue is the role of images in our relationship with God and with one another. As St. Paul says, ‘At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face.’ That indistinct vision is our condition, our struggle, and also our blessing. There is such a great deal we don’t know about God and each other.Images enable us to see while at the same time revealing a sense of separation. We are pilgrims until that hour of encounter.”

Equally the work of a devoted priest and an accomplished artist, the drawings of “Face to Face” splendidly celebrate that pilgrimage and solemnly foreshadow that encounter.

Originally published by Michael O. Garvey at on November 26, 2007.