Know your roots

Tuan Phan

Animal, vegetable or roadmap? A sculpture by Tuan Phan.

Animal, vegetable or roadmap? A sculpture by Tuan Phan.

Photo By lauren Randolph

Are you rooted in the place you call home or en route to somewhere new? Bound to the past? Bound for the future? Or maybe rootbound as a houseplant, alive but enclosed?

Tuan Phan’s compact sculptures dive into the gooey center of that whole triple entendre, living up to all the potential meanings of his exhibit’s pun-stacked title, Root/Bound.

His half-human forms are truncated somewhere between waist and shoulders and topped with what look to be clumps of succulent roots or miniature, wind-scarred tumbleweeds. (They’re actually wire forms wrapped with thin fibers of untwisted manila rope.) The realistically meaty human parts are covered with hand-drawn maps. Some of the route lines are made of colored embroidery thread, just three-dimensional enough to look like the exposed veins of a cadaver. But these matter-of-fact symbols of vitality and mortality don’t have the familiar reek of anxious irony that often characterizes art that tackles life and death. Phan’s figures lounge in joyous repose or stand half grounded, half animated, as if stepping out of a yoga pose.

“The idea of impermanence is a central theme in my work.” Phan says over the phone from his home in Arcadia, Calif., outside Los Angeles. He was born in Vietnam and moved to Los Angeles with his family in 1981, when he was 6. He says he relates to both cultures, but he identifies himself more as Vietnamese than American.

Phan is a Buddhist, and in keeping with a Buddhist way of looking at things, his artwork reflects the idea of life and death being intertwined. In Buddhism, the soul continues to exist after the body decays. In his sculptures, he imposes his own biographical references—the maps are of California and Vietnam—onto the more universal symbols of a human life cycle and of humans and nature being inseparable. While weaving together life and death, the natural and the artificial, the past and the present, Phan manages to end up with sculptures that are psychologically concise and deftly edited.

“In Buddhism there’s a lot of leeway,” Phan says. “It’s very natural and nature oriented. I really don’t like specifics. I don’t care for rendering anything so realistically.”

Even though he uses symbols a Western audience will recognize clearly, he leaves room for ambiguity. He’s OK with religious or secular readings of his work, and his figures aren’t particularly male or female. (Though some of the more curvaceous half-bodies arch and stretch into just enough of a voyeur-inviting pose that if you want to consider what “root” means in Australian slang, a most libidinous dialect, the show’s title now gets the award for Most Multidimensional Pun That Still Works.)

Before making these pieces, Phan experimented for years with drawing human figures and sculpting organic forms made of stones and dirt. Eventually, his ideas congealed into bundles of somber metaphors that layer systems of perception—map, body, plant—on top of each other. If there were one more ounce of information in each sculpture, they’d come off like a jumble of information, but Phan knows exactly when to stop tinkering. His precisely crafted forms reproduce the entropy of the natural world in his own voice. (The hopeful, pale green sprouts that “grow” out of some of the sculptures are extremely convincing paint and epoxy.)

While Phan has mapped out his own roots and routes, alluded to his boundaries and the end we’re all bound for, he’s committed to leaving a cushion of wiggle room for viewers to relate to his work however they may.

Or, as he puts it, “I love what the Buddha says, ‘Don’t believe in what I have to say.’ ”