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March 30, 2006

Art Beat

Family values


painting, "FAMILY SITTING, NO. 3", BY LIEN TRUONG.I went to the HSU's First Street Gallery to meet with artist Lien Truong and talk about her show, which opens there on April 1. I was about 10 minutes early. I pressed my nose to the glass to see if anyone was inside. There were some people on the other side of the room. I knocked at the door and waved. The people were unnaturally still. Then I realized they were a painting.

Right: "Family Sitting, No. 3," by Lien Truong.

I knew Lien when we were in college together and was familiar with her work then, but I wasn't expecting life-sized, photo-realistic paintings of people. This was not where she'd been back then. "I wonder what she's up to," I thought. An intern finally showed up and let me take a peek around before Lien showed up. I'm glad I got a chance to look at the work before I knew what it was about, and if you want to do the same, better stop reading now and go see the show. One series of paintings show groupings of people against blank white backgrounds, sometimes with pets, not touching but seeming to be together. The groups appear to be families, but none of them are clearly Mom, Dad and kids. And this ambiguity is the whole idea.

And now, I digress. Before I got married, I thought very carefully about whether or not I wanted to enter into an institution that is still being "protected" by our society from certain people. When my lesbian and gay friends can get married, I thought, then I'd think about it. However, I did get married when I realized how complicated it would be to get the same rights and protections for ourselves and our son through a domestic partnership set-up. It was just a heck of lot easier (not to mention the fact that it does offer more benefits) to get married, which is why everyone who wants it should be allowed this basic right.

I mention this because Lien had similar qualms when she was thinking about getting married, and her desire to explore the issue further is what motivated these paintings. "I started to think about what the phrase `family values' really means," she said. The reality is that, regardless of marriage laws, families look a lot more diverse then marriage "protection" lobbyists would have us believe. Perhaps Lien realized, as I did, that she couldn't change the reality for same-sex couples by refusing to marry, but she could use her art to present a less biased look at the concept of family.

All of the groups in Lien's paintings are people who call themselves a family (regardless of any "legally" recognized marriage) and have been in a relationship for more then 10 years. The paintings are rooted in the tradition of European family portraiture of the 17th and 18th centuries, but they turn the conventions of this style on their heads. Those family portraits were typically of upper-class families, and were intentionally designed to trumpet the family's status and wealth. The families were shown in their finery, surrounded by their possessions and generally idealized. But in Lien's portraits, she intentionally strips away any distracting elements and asked the families to wear their everyday attire. The exact relationships of the subjects are left to the imagination of the viewer, as well as their social status and occupations.

When you look at the paintings, you'll probably find yourself, as I did, trying to work out who is who, and your interpretations will be guided by your beliefs, prejudices and expectations of family. For example, one painting, The Wagner Family Portrait, shows three women, two who seem to be middle-age and one who looks about 20 years older. Lien told me that when the painting was shown in middle-class, suburban Fremont, people tended to assume they were seeing a mother and her two daughters. In San Francisco, however, people generally assumed it was a lesbian couple and the mother of one of the younger women. If you find yourself desperately curious and wanting to know the answers, then Lien has succeeded in showing us that families are not always what we expect them to be. However, she's not telling!

In another set of paintings, she addresses the same issue but takes a different, opposite approach, painting possessions, clothing, knick-knacks and furniture, and leaving out the people. Again, she paints every detail with careful photo-quality renderings every fold of the clothing, the labels in the necks of the shirts that would normally be covered by the person wearing them. A hat floats above a dress, a shoe hovers in midair, where a leg and foot would place it if they were there. In one painting, she includes the family photographs, but in keeping with her strategy of mystery, the photographs are blurred, and if you look carefully, you can see that the people have been removed here as well, leaving only their clothing.

For this set of paintings she asked her subjects to dress up, and it's interesting to see how the subjects interpreted her directive. My favorite portrait, Family Sitting No. 3, is a fine example of dressing up. One person a man, judging by the shape chose a green shirt with a skull lariat, knee length shorts and Birkenstocks. He sits with his right foot on his left knee, which we can figure out by the placement of the right sandal. The other fellow (?) in this group chose his purple blazer, black and white shirt and a skinny lime and salmon colored tie. The female (?) in the group sports the hat that floats in midair. This is the group that I most want to meet. I like their style.

That phrase, "family values," has been bandied about until it's practically meaningless, and perhaps that's who marriage should be protected from people who use words without thinking about what they mean. Through this work, Lien has thought deeply (albeit with a sense of humor) about what family means to her, and shows us what she found. What draws people together into binding relationships is a mystery, but Lien's work illustrates the fact that it does not necessarily have to do with gender, ethnicity or social expectations.

The show will be up at the First Street Gallery from April 1 through May 14. A reception for the artist will be held during the Saturday, April 1 Arts Alive!, from 6 to 9 p.m. Lien will present an informal tour of the exhibition in a question-and-answer format at the gallery Saturday, April 29, at 3 p.m. Admission is free. Gallery hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, at 422 First Street, Eureka.

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