Antonius-Tín Bui draws, cuts and slices artistic statements about history and identity
By Christina Campodonico
It’s easy to get lost in the intricate hand-cut paper designs of artist Antonius-Tín Bui. Precise geometric patterns coexist with swirly — literally paper thin — lines that either resemble the chaotic marks one might scrawl across a notebook in a rage or the wavy bands of stainless steel that adorn the Petersen Automotive Museum’s exterior on Wilshire Boulevard.
In Bui’s hands, an ordinary piece of paper can transform into an elaborate wall hanging that’s also a portrait of a close friend or an homage to a lineage of imaginary queer ancestors. A sheet of paper can rise to the level of runway fashion, evoking the elegance of a long wedding gown train or the grandeur of a superhero’s cape. You can see these pieces and more in “Finding Heart (tìm tim)” on view at Loyola Marymount University’s Laband Gallery through Dec. 14.
Inevitably, one wonders where the artist’s mind goes to achieve such an elaborate level of detail. Bui told international art-and-design platform Curator that “nearly all my pieces are a nonlinear dance between intuitive cutting, drawing/sketching, and calculated slicing.” (Bui also outlines the backs of works with a complicated, yet spontaneous color-coded system of “layers.”) But lately the artist, who is the child of Vietnamese refugees and identifies as queer and gender non-binary, finds their mind even more “scattered.”
“…In the past, I would always tell people it was just extremely meditative,” says Bui, who self-taught paper cutting by making paper angels and snowflakes as a child. “I would get lost. But I do find myself, like many artists nowadays, [having] doubt in my practice and my purpose a lot more than ever, especially with the climate crisis at hand, our political environment.”
Yet in a series of blue and red laser-cut pieces depicting traditional Asian iconography such as Chinese lanterns, dragons and dramatic facemasks, Bui confronts our current political moment with visually appealing or familiar decorative motifs you might see at an Asian restaurant or Chinese New Year celebration, but then upends their seemingly benign and decorative look with confrontational verbiage such as “F*ck Trump,” “Not Your Token,” “Not Your Model Minority,” “Abolish I.C.E.,” or “Not Your China Doll.”
“Many artists work with texts. That’s a trope that’s been around for a long time,” says Laband Gallery Director Karen Rapp. “But these somehow are so inviting, and so they draw you close, and then they kind of punch you.”
These works not only remind that paper can adorn and decorate, but also cut as well as document traumatic history. Another paper work of Bui’s titled “1975 Should Be Enough” superimposes Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Nick Ut’s famous and harrowing image of a wailing girl fleeing a napalm attack during the Vietnam War upon the artist’s own self-portrait rendered in chaotic red and glittery lines.
It reflects not only a dark chapter of American history, but also a difficult moment in the artist’s life— a time near the beginning of Trump’s presidency when Bui was suffering from hair loss during a stressful artist’s residency, preparing for their very first trip to Vietnam “to make amends with the past” and contending with their parents’ own “glorification of America and their fears of going back to Vietnam.”
“I was starting to wake up with balding spots and to like have hair all over my bed,” says Bui. “So [I was] thinking a lot about intergenerational trauma or induced trauma and seeing correlations between my own body and the bodies that I was studying.”
In many ways, Bui hopes their work can be a conversation starter.
“I am really, really grateful that my pieces can spark conversation or affirm people’s opinions or beliefs. …. But at the same time I’m also weary or fearful of whether or not sometimes we are preaching to the choir,” says Bui, musing further: “How do I take existing forms and imagine the conversations that I wish I had growing up at the family table?”
Discussion and performance is becoming a larger portion of Bui’s artistic practice. On Thursday (Nov. 14) from 6 to 8 p.m., a discussion panel in the Laband Gallery will be followed by an “artist’s mass and procession” featuring pop music, queer manifestos and poetry. Then on Saturday (Nov. 15) from 2 to 4 p.m., four L.A.-based performance artists join Bui in activating the Laband with experimental performances, including sound art, tattooing and video projections.
In the end, Bui is hesitant to identify as an “activist,” but says this: “I never felt like I had the privilege to be neutral as an artist. … And so I would hope that every single artist — whether or not their work is directly speaking to political problems … is making time and space to be politically engaged, to be reading, to be registered to vote if they can, to inspire other people to vote and to exercise democracy on a daily basis.”
“Finding Heart (tìm tim)” is on view through Dec. 14 at Loyola Marymount University’s Laband Gallery, 1 LMU Dr., Westchester. Visit cfa.lmu.edu/laband-gallery for gallery hours.