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Anh Duong, Trou de memoire
Anh Duong, “Trou de memoire”, 2011Courtesy of Galerie Gmurzynska

An intimate look through Anh Duong’s visual diary

As a selection of her works go on display in Zurich, the artist, actor, and model discusses the complexities of femininity, and why painting is the ultimate freedom

“I am my own muse. I am the subject I know best. The subject I want to know better,” Frida Kahlo said, her words revealing a profound truth about the creation of art. In the hands of a painter, the canvas is transformed into a page in the book of life, delving into the intricate facets of existence that lay both within and beneath the shimmering surfaces of the visible world. The painting is an exploration of the artist’s inner and outer worlds, creating a space where the two might meet and in that encounter proffer something we have never before seen.

“As an artist, you always have to challenge yourself. It’s about growth, engaging with the unknown, and recognising something new, like, ‘Yes, that’s what I was searching for’,” says French-American artist, actor, and model Anh Duong, who is currently exhibiting a selection of her works in La Tentation d’Exister. There is always Champagne in the Fridge at Galerie Gmurzynska in Zurich. Bringing together a selection of still lifes, self-portraits, and portraits of Vincent Gallo, Susan Sarandon, and Anjelica Huston, the exhibition offers an intimate look at Duong’s practice over the past 30 years. 

Duong first made her name as a model when noted photographer David Seidner launched her career in March 1986 with an Yves Saint Laurent campaign for Vogue Paris. Trained as a ballerina, Duong was a natural in front of the camera, effortlessly holding difficult poses for extended periods of time, and quickly went on work with luminaries including Herb Ritts, Steven Meisel, Patrick Demarchelier, and Peter Lindbergh. Muse to Christian Lacroix, Duong has walked the runway for John Galliano, Yohji Yamamoto, and Karl Lagerfeld, becoming a singular beauty during the era of the supermodel.

Soon thereafter, Duong began working as an actor. Since appearing in the 1992 film The Mambo Kings, Duong has appeared in more than a dozen movies, most recently 2019’s Uncut Gems. Though Duong’s name has appeared in bright lights for more than three decades, her success has been organic – a testament to her commitment to following her heart rather than chasing money, fame, or status. “I never chose a career,” Duong reveals. “I was lucky to be able to make a living by following my passion. I pursued modeling, and was fortunate to meet incredible talent and be surrounded by enormous creativity. Modeling was a great way to navigate fashion, travel, and discover the world in the 1980s.” 

By the late 1980s, the New York art world was reaching new peaks as the first seedlings of neoliberalism began to transform artists into brands. While collectors were setting records at auction, the gallery world began to expand with the rise of Soho and the East Village bringing forward a new era in downtown New York. For Duong, being surrounded by artists was a revelation. “Being a painter was the ultimate freedom,” she says. “As an artist, nobody was going to tell me what to do. As a dancer, a model, and an actor, there was always someone telling me what to do, as though I was a child. When you are modeling, you are the object of attention and desire.” 

But as a painter, Duong had complete control over the image. Seizing the day, she decided to jump right in, skipping school in favor of becoming a self-taught artist. “I felt like I didn’t have time to study, and I was brave or crazy enough to just do it,” Duong says. “I was young, excited, and inspired by these artists, and I was lucky to go to their galleries and studios to see how they were operating.”

In 1989, while summering at Andy Warhol’s Montauk estate, Duong began making self-portraits after her sitter did not show up. “I got frustrated, then decided to use myself. I’m on time and available,” she says with a laugh. “When I’m alone in the studio, there’s an intimacy I can create. It’s like a diary – not in a literal way, but in an emotional way. This is how I used to see myself and feel about myself in the world.”

For Duong, painting has been a lifelong process of expressing herself, something she began doing before she could even write. The youngest of her siblings, Duong was a shy child who felt lonely at times. Painting became a bridge to the outside world, providing her with a means to express herself, communicate, and connect; providing her with a sense of balance in the ever-changing landscape of life. “Being an artist comes from need,” she says. “It’s very challenging; there’s a lot of introspection and there’s a lot of loneliness. You have to be capable to be alone and explore yourself. You are your own tool.”

For Duong, painting is an adventure unto itself, an opportunity to step into a space where the journey – and not the destination – is what matters most. “I will have a dream, a desire, a feeling, and that is the passage to the canvas. It guides me, and I don’t know where I’m going but I trust that I will land somewhere,” she says. “I work from instinct, and my painting is informing me of what’s going on in my unconscious mind. I don’t want to define it – I just want to connect to it.”

“When I’m alone in the studio, there’s an intimacy I can create. It’s like a diary – not in a literal way, but in an emotional way” – Anh Duong

Although Duong’s self-portraits have been very well received, she’s not interested in representing herself. “God knows I have so many photographs of myself from over the years,” she says. “The self-portraits are my way of expressing something else. I appropriate my image and I am being my own muse. I don’t try to understand what I paint because then I will feel self-conscious and shy, and I wouldn’t want to explore myself in the nudity, whether it’s sexuality or vulnerability, it would be too scary.”

Duong’s self-portraits become mirrors in which the viewers can see themselves. “I don’t look for likeness, but the likeness will appear from the feeling,” she says. 

The paintings become a way in which we can recognise ourselves in the other, and the other in us, recalling Anais Nin’s observation, “We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are”. Like Duong, we are always searching, exploring, and seeking the balance between knowledge and wonder. We move like shadows across the landscape, ever shifting, changing, and reemerging as the earth rotates. 

Nin’s writing helps to elucidate the mysterious unknowingness that lies in the heart of Duong’s self-portraits. “We do not grow absolutely, chronologically,” Nin wrote. “We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations.”

For Duong, those layers can be found within the brushstrokes themselves – the aspect of painting that she finds most magical and profound. “What’s important to me is the brushstroke, the movement, the energy in the stroke,” she says. “I paint lipstick, underwear, high heels – because these are the things around me. You could say the subject might be feminine, but the brushstroke has no gender. Ultimately, I’m interested in how it is painted.”

While Duong recognises that there is a difference between the male gaze and the female gaze, she resists a need to define gender, observing that the question of what is feminine is more interesting than the answer itself. “We need to redefine feminine, because what is feminine has been defined by men,” says Duong, who refuses to be stereotyped. 

“This is the story of my life,” she says. “It was really challenging for me to come from modeling and be a painter. People want to put you in a box because you are confusing them. It’s challenging when you are a young woman, it’s kind of scary not to be what is expected of you, so the good thing about maturity is that you can stop apologising and own it.”

“It’s challenging when you are a young woman, it’s kind of scary not to be what is expected of you, so the good thing about maturity is that you can stop apologising and own it” – Anh Duong

Duong recalls her early forays into the male dominated art world and the response she received. “I went to my first opening completely dressed up and people were telling me, ‘Be careful, they aren’t going to take you seriously’,” she says. “I was 27, and this was so offensive to me. If you’re pretty, they expect you to be stupid and untalented. Women were expected to look like men. I was not going to play that game. I was going to stick with who I was. Now the world of art and fashion have merged, and I was fighting for that from the beginning.”

Now 60, Duong has witnessed the world finally begin to catch up to her understanding that being a woman is far more complex than labels would have it. “It’s not for me to define it, because that’s the adventure,” she says. “One day I’m angry, I’m ugly, and I want to curse. The next day, I want to be cute and wear high heels. I want to express myself completely.”

Painting offers Duong the ability to do just that, creating a space for intimacy and exploration that no other medium offers. “Painting is an act of love,” Duong says. “There is an intimacy that is happening when you look at your sitter and they look back at you. You are looking into each other’s eyes – it’s intense. Whatever happens is a result of spending time with them, giving them your attention, and getting inspired. It’s a beautiful thing.”

Ahn Duong: La Tentation d’Exister. There is always Champagne in the Fridge at Galerie Gmurzynska in Zurich, Switzerland, through September 30, 2021