By Paul Fairchild
Denise Duong’s family came here from Vietnam. She was born a first-generation American – and Oklahoman – and graduated from Putnam City High School. She travels a great deal, but aside from brief stopovers here and there, Duong’s home has always been Oklahoma City. That description makes her sound mildly interesting. But it gets better – she’s also arguably one of the most important artists in Oklahoma.
Duong speaks softly but with confidence, often halting in mid-sentence, giving
herself time to choose the right words. This is a quality that also translates to her mixed media art. While the overall style is whimsical and playful, every line and fold is chosen as carefully as her words. She is an impromptu perfectionist.
Recently, Duong’s work enjoyed a showing in the State Capitol’s East Gallery. This is a mark of prestige and celebrity that few artists see at such a young age.
“In my opinion, Denise is one of Oklahoma’s strongest female artists,” said Alyson
Atchison, curator of the Capitol Galleries. “She has a completely unique style. The amount of expression she puts into her work is amazing. You see in her work the same things you see in her – spontaneity, adventure, romanticism.”
The concept behind mixed media art is simple. The execution, however, is not. We see it every day in commercials, animation and greeting cards. It is the technique of joining two or more media – paper, paint, metal, fibers, beadwork, photos – into a single composition. Before starting a piece, Duong coats the canvas with varnish, her favorite surface with which to work. She follows that with a rough sketch that forms a crude blueprint for the addition of paint and paper, or whatever materials she happens to be working with at the time. She is experimenting with incorporating tapestry into her future works.
“Mixed media gives me the depth and the look that I’m looking for with my
subjects,” she says “Personally, when I paint, it feels too flat. Painting just doesn’t do it for me. I like the layers, the paper. It comes to life for me. When I start a piece, I draw. And I like the way it looks. But when I start adding the layers, it looks more interesting to me.”
Unique is one word for her work. Singular. Novel. Idiosyncratic. More words. But the simple fact is that there is nothing out there that even resembles Duong’s work. The influence of no other artist can be found in her offerings. As an art student, she steered away from studying other artists, always coming away from comparisons feeling her own work to be without value. Those negative experiences, however, may have done her the greatest favor of all. Without working in the shadows of other artists, she was able to approach her craft tabula rasa – her own ideas on her own terms.
Says Duong, “I don’t draw inspiration from other artists. If there is an artist using a
technique I like, I’ll look into the process, but I don’t study the body of their work. I like learning new things that add new elements to my work.”
Her piece, “Revival,” depicts a man with a stoic expression riding a fantastical bicycle. A basket on the back of the cycle holds a dog and a duck watching the path recede behind the bike. On the handlebars sits a fancifully dressed, open-mouthed, amazed woman wearing aviator’s goggles. She takes in the scenery as it rushes by, reveling in the speed and forward movement of the cycle. The driver, however, elicits a sense of complete control. This same interesting blend of control and fun describes perfectly the Denise Duong who showed up for our interview.
The fun aspects of her work inspired one reviewer to call them “storybook images.”
The comment was not meant pejoratively. Duong’s playfulness inevitably leads to another quality of her work.
“I feel like I really embrace innocence. I like the idea of not being corrupted, although we all get corrupted as we get older. But don’t let it weigh you down. Have bright eyes.”
Duong has painted and illustrated since she was 16. She has stuck with these media over the “graffiti” years, which she is understandably reluctant to talk about. She vehemently denies hooliganism, though a cross-country hitchhiking trip with a friend did get the attention of the Highway Patrol in several states. But she has no regrets. The trip ended up providing more than enough material for an entire series of paintings.
After spending her adolescence experimenting with different styles and media,
Duong left Oklahoma to study at the Chicago Arts Institute, easily among the best art schools in America. It was a virtual theme park for a budding artist. It was here that Duong’s love of different media really took hold. Unlike her fellow students, she did not concentrate on any one medium. She learned new techniques, new ways of making things, new ways of expressing herself – everything from ceramics and printmaking to painting and sculpting.
Denise’s work is shown in various galleries in Oklahoma City, including the JRB Art at the Elms. Her December show at the gallery will be based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story. It’s a first for her – she is comfortable narrating her own life, but this exhibit will require her to narrate someone else’s.
Says gallery owner Joy Reed Belt, “The paintings of Denise Duong are unique in
subject matter, style, materials and technique. Much like F. Scott Fitzgerald, who chronicled the Jazz Age and wrote ‘The Diamond as Big as the Ritz’ – which serves as an inspiration for her upcoming exhibition at JRB Art at the Elms – Denise chronicles her generation. The subjects in her paintings aspire to idealism. She wants us to forget the tragedy and ugliness that we encounter every day and instead enjoy and celebrate life.”
Fueled by curiosity, Duong approaches her subjects with a whimsical, playful style.
“I guess that’s how I like to live,” she says. “I like to travel a lot and I like to play really hard. Whenever I compare my life to other people’s lives, I don’t feel like I really work. It seems like I am constantly just playing. When I’m painting, it’s very free and fun.”
Just as no particular medium grabbed her in school, no particular subject grabs
“I tend to base my work on my adventures in life, with the exaggeration of what I wish could happen, like flying around in an open-top airplane. But it seems like most of my themes are from my own adventures,” she says.
Perhaps Duong’s love of innocence sits in the middle of her interest in giving back to her community. She contributes both time and art to the Candlelighters’ Childhood Cancer Foundation, Naomi’s Hope for a Cure for Pediatric Cancer Research, various Oklahoma City fundraisers for local arts organizations and public school programs. In short, she can’t always be found in her studio.
Says Belt, “Whether Denise is painting a couple pushing an overloaded cart through customs or a beautiful young woman richly adorned and posing in front of a background stenciled with pistols, her paintings are lyrical, colorful and stylish. While she layers her paintings with fabric and paint to add depth, complexity and mood, the most distinguishing characteristic of her work is her uncanny ability to evoke emotions of her generation as they’re associated with time and place.”
And so it goes. Denise Duong, from within the walls of her garage studio – which she describes as chaotic and far messier than other artists’ studios – will continue to whimsically deploy different materials to record the equally messy mark that her own generation makes on history.