Julien Nguyen - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in association with Yongle Hong Kong Thursday, December 1, 2022 | Phillips

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  • “I’m drawn to certain artists and certain ways of making, certain techniques of depiction, that tend to come from the early Renaissance. But it’s a question of method, not style. During this period, painting became a form of philosophical play. The way in which these artists began to think about and collect art is actually very similar to where contemporary art ended up in the twentieth century. Renaissance painters did not simply try to reproduce what was in front of them or arrange pleasing shapes in a field but sought to bring something into life through an analogous process of physically constructing or building or growing it in their pictures. Take the landscapes in the backgrounds of many Renaissance paintings, where painters took elements from their own region and projected them onto Palestine or Egypt or wherever the tale is set. They’re constructed like stages, like dioramas, or like maps in a video game. The conjuring aspect is really powerful. I’ll say this in the language of the time: They’re bringing to life their own genius.”
    — Julien Nguyen

    A Vision Unbound


    Phillips is pleased to present a work by the ever-enigmatic Vietnamese-American artist, Julien Nguyen, for the first time at auction in Asia. As a teenager growing up in Washington D.C. and during the dawn of the Internet Age, Nguyen formed the basis of his aesthetic by playing video games like Civilization III, Age of Empires and StarCraft, each with their own highly stylised depictions of their respective worlds. This would then inform his later studies of Illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design; of this he remarks ‘You’re building your empire and conquering different parts of the world or space. I wanted to become a concept artist who designs all the characters and spaceships and buildings.’i



    Installation view of the current work (left) at Cincinnati, Contemporary Arts Center, Julien Nguyen: Returns, 8 February - 16 June 2019


    This interest in technology and digital media forms one half of the glimmering coin that is Nguyen’s practice, the other side being a profound preoccupation with the art that has come before him, drawing in particular from the bottomless pool of visual source of the Renaissance. He describes this marriage as such: ‘science fiction mirrors the Renaissance way of thinking about history, using the rubble of the present or the past. These were the things that led me into art.’ ii He unlocks the power of the Old Masters by connecting the dots between antiquity and the present day, combining Byzantine decorative flourishes with Renaissance rationality, through to French Mannerism and the biomorphism of Japanese Manga.



    Raphael, The Miraculous Draft of Fishes, c. 1515
    Colection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London
    Image: Eraza Collection / Alamy Stock Photo


    An inversion of cultural capital, Nguyen turns propaganda into a guidebook for understanding the canon of art history through the combinatory lens of an artist that holds more affinity with Dr. Who than the average man. ‘It is my strong belief’, he posits, ‘that from the 17th century onwards much of western art slowly transforms into (bad) apologetics for imperialism— but not before! It is from before where we might still learn, if we could only remember.’i Faust II is a startling vision of this maxim as we are presented with his foundational methodology. Peculiarity permeates through the work, which is split into two sides, almost as a diptych. The left side of the composition reveals an intimate scene that straddles piety and intimacy: a member of the cloth burrowed into scripture while a pubescent boy pulls his trousers on – acts of indulging in and cleansing of sin operating in tandem.



    Detail of the present lot 


    The right side of the work is more macabre. Mimicking the traditional representation of the Crucifixion, a man is suspended in thin air with his arms outstretched, his legs crossed and draped in a red loincloth. While these visual signifiers point towards the graphic Biblical scene, the man’s face in this picture quickly dispels any associations with Jesus. Instead of the pained expression of sacrifice, we are greeted with a garish grin and demented emeralds for eyes reminiscent of characteristic portrayals of the demon.


    A fallen angel rather than humanity’s saviour, a man stands below this (anti)Christ, arms likewise outstretched in the presence of divinity. Despite lacking facial features, the black coiffed hair and glasses are a give-away of the artist’s own inclusion into the composition, an exploit of self-portraiture that lends Faust II a personal touch. The dark fantastical tones of the work are compounded by another figure receding into the sanguine sky, indicating towards the central character while bosomed by an anthropomorphic shape. Though Raphael is often cited as the inspiration for Nguyen’s figuration, when we consider the contorted angularity of this bodies we realise that they lie closed to the corporality of El Greco, and that of Mannerism.


    The allegorical ambiguity of the painting can be resolved by considering its title. Faust is the protagonist of the classic German legend, immortalised by Christopher Marlowe and Goethe’s epics. A scholar dissatisfied with the limitations of his own knowledge, he makes a pact with the Devil who promises essential satisfaction. Things quickly take a turn for the worse as he is dragged through vice, deceit and deception. We can see this tale played out on the right-hand side of the composition, with the crucified man representing Mephistopheles – the Devil’s delegate – and the man dressed in blue robes being Faust. If we take the latter figure to be Nguyen himself, then the work takes on an extraordinary depth of meaning, shrouding it in nefarious cloak as we begin to question the artist’s own immoral ambitions, and fear for his fate.



    El Greco, The Opening of the Fifth Seal (The Vision of Saint John), 1608-14
    The Metropolitan Museum of Art
    Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Rogers Fund, 1956


    Nguyen’s accomplished mastery over the human form comes to the forefront here and lends Faust II a quality as intoxicating as it is unsettling. The detached localities of the painting ground the figures in a kind of fever dream, and aligns the work with that of Giorgio de Chirico’s metaphysical period.  Moreover, like the Italian before him, Nguyen seeks a return to order by turning to the past for inspiration. Yet this work should not be treated as a pastiche of Renaissance sensibilities but rather an endeavour of dragging them into the 21st Century, ultimately creating artistic conciliations of effortless fluency.



    Giorgio de Chirico, Il Trovatore, 1955
    Museum of Modern Art, Dublin
    Artwork: © 2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SIAE, Rome 


    Collector’s Digest


    Nguyen’s popularity has crossed the border of art and fashion, with the fashion brand Ottolinger basing their Fall 2020 collection, which was then worn by the likes of Dua Lipa and Bella Hadid, while the rapper SZA wore a shift from the collection in her music video for ‘Hit Different’. Of the collaboration, the artist said ‘I’ve always gotten a lot of satisfaction from the representation of fabric, the beauty of certain materials, the way things are cut and made. But making clothes is a completely different operation than figuring out what pair of shorts this boy is going to wear in a painting. The fact that certain pop-cultural figures began to wear those clothes did elicit both excitement and a bit of a chuckle. The paintings become much more symbolic, like how Athena has the head of a Gorgon on her shield.’ii


    Nguyen’s work was included in the 2017 Whitney Biennial and has been the subject of one-person exhibitions at the Swiss Institute in New York, Kunstverein München in Munich, and the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati.



    i Julien Ngyuen, quoted in Kate Dwyer, ‘An Artist Who Blurs Video Games and Italian Renaissance’, The New York Times, 20 August 2021, online 
    ii Julien Ngyuen, quoted in Travis Diehl, ‘Julien Nguyen on the Renaissance, conjury, and painting himself’, Artforum, 20 July 2021, online

    • Condition Report

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    • Description

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    • Provenance

      Stuart Shave Modern Art, London
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Cincinnati, Contemporary Arts Center, Julien Nguyen: Returns, 8 February - 16 June 2019


Faust II

signed and dated 'Julien Nguyen 2017' on the reverse
oil on panel
113.3 x 182.8 cm. (44 5/8 x 71 7/8 in.)
Painted in 2017.

Full Cataloguing

HK$900,000 - 1,200,000 

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Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+852 2318 2026
[email protected]

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in association with Yongle

Hong Kong Auction 1 December 2022