An abandoned house — its siding falling off, revealing raw, worn wooden planks — stands in the middle of a grassy field. In the distance is a lone tree and a set of wagon wheels, positioned as if they’re resting. If you’ve ever driven through a rural Midwestern landscape, this is a familiar scene, and one that artist Teo Nguyen gracefully captures in 15 large-scale, photorealistic paintings.
“I continue to be in awe with the vast beauty of the Middle West landscapes,” he said, “how humans interact with the natural environment, how we cultivate and interact with our surroundings.”
The serenity of these landscapes inspires him on a deeply spiritual level.
His exhibition “Teo Nguyen: A Reflection on Being,” currently on view at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum’s Reedy Gallery, offers visitors of slice of that serenity. The paintings range from quiet winter scenes, with prairies and barns gently dusted in snow, to a flat landscape decorated only by a single red barn in the distance.
Curator Wendy DePaolis said Nguyen is attracted to subjects that look deceptively simple.
“He makes otherwise well-worn scenes of rural farms and prairies into something contemporary,” she said. “The infinite extensions of the landscapes are held captive in these images, distilling vast, expansive distances into mesmerizing artworks.”
These paintings by Nguyen, who grew up in war-torn Vietnam and arrived in the United States at age 16, suggest the opposite of a chaotic environment.
“I imagine this abundance of peace for Vietnam,” he said of his landscapes.
The spiritual practice of animism (that plants, inanimate objects and natural phenomena have souls) also guides Nguyen’s work. In his landscape series, he expresses his reverence for nature, and the idea that the land holds stories of lives and spirits that have passed through as well as those that remain.
His work is held in collections at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Minnesota Museum of American Art, and the Walker Art Center, among others.
DePaolis observed that through studying Nguyen’s works, she has “come to appreciate that Teo paints a field where you sense things have happened and things will happen without any overt indication,” she said. “It is the mystery of the essence that feels contemporary to me. Really great art doesn’t spell out everything for you in one glance.”
Placing these works in an art gallery at the arboretum, where nature continues to grow, thrive and expand, adds another level of interconnectedness to the canvases.
“The arboretum is a place where I often visit to relieve stress and to meditate,” said Nguyen. “When I retire, I wish to spend equal time in the garden and studio.”
Minnesotans tend to revel in the brightness of each season. The way the colors change in autumn, when a tree with bright red leaves is set off against a background of a field of still-green leaves. The way winter comes suddenly, harshly, with white blanketing every open space. How the ice thaws in spring, followed by the beauty of summer, with its long days and warm embrace.
Nguyen’s paintings capture the emotions of the seasons, the way the landscape grips onto and embodies them. Experiencing his paintings in the arboretum feels like a poetic gesture, conceptually aligning with the work itself.
“The arboretum is the place where people come to learn about prairies, to appreciate the solemn beauty of the four seasons and to be in awe of all that Mother Nature has to share with us,” said DePaolis.
Teo Nguyen: A Reflection on Being
- 3675 Arboretum Dr., Chaska, Minn. Open daily 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Ends Nov. 29.
- 612-624-2200 or arb.umn.edu. Arboretum cost: $15, free for ages 15 and under.