Tam Tran's search for identity leads to Whitney Museum's Biennial

  At 23, Tam Tran is the youngest of the 55 artists whose work was chosen for the 2010 Whitney Biennial, an ongoing survey of American art and artists next year in New York City. 'I'm not known in the Memphis art world, really,' she says. 'I just kind of came out of nowhere.'

Photo by Dave Darnell // Buy this photo

At 23, Tam Tran is the youngest of the 55 artists whose work was chosen for the 2010 Whitney Biennial, an ongoing survey of American art and artists next year in New York City. "I'm not known in the Memphis art world, really," she says. "I just kind of came out of nowhere."

How does a Memphis artist get from Otherlands Coffee Bar to the Whitney? In three easy steps, if you ask Tam Tran.

  A pair of photographs by Tam Tran, 'My Call to Arms' (top) and 'A Doll On Your Mantel,'  were selected for inclusion in the 2010 Whitney Biennial.  Much of Tran's work deals with the physical transformation of herself into different, often unrecognizable, self-portraits.

A pair of photographs by Tam Tran, "My Call to Arms" (top) and "A Doll On Your Mantel," were selected for inclusion in the 2010 Whitney Biennial. Much of Tran's work deals with the physical transformation of herself into different, often unrecognizable, self-portraits.

'Battle Cry' (tpo) and 'Dunce Man,' from a series of seven photographs by Tam Tran titled 'Raising Hell,' will be featured in the Whitney Biennial. The exhibit at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art is only the third exhibition of Tran's art.

"Battle Cry" (tpo) and "Dunce Man," from a series of seven photographs by Tam Tran titled "Raising Hell," will be featured in the Whitney Biennial. The exhibit at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art is only the third exhibition of Tran's art.

The local photographer is the only Memphian selected for inclusion in next year's Whitney Biennial, the standard-bearing survey of contemporary American art, scheduled for Feb. 25-May 30, 2010, at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art. One of 55 Biennial participants, Tran is also the youngest at 23.

That this is only the third exhibit of her nascent, largely self-taught career makes the selection all the more remarkable. Her first showing was at Otherlands, followed this past summer by the Power House Memphis group exhibition, "Everywhere, Nowhere, Somewhere ...," which spotlighted her talent alongside a mix of international and Memphis artists including locals Jonathan and Mary Postal, Dwayne Butcher and Joel Parsons.

"I'm not known in the Memphis art world, really," says Tran. "I just kind of came out of nowhere."

She says she was simply contacted via e-mail to submit some images.

"At first I thought it was spam," she laughs.

She sent some images anyway, and six of seven photographs from her "Raising Hell" series were chosen. She doesn't even know exactly how she came to the Whitney's attention, though she suspects it was a result of the "Everywhere, Nowhere, Somewhere ..." show.

Lester Merriweather, gallery coordinator at the defunct Power House Memphis, says that was indeed the case. A representative from the Whitney saw the exhibit, and work by Keith Anderson and Jonathan and Mary Postal was also considered.

Whitney senior curatorial assistant Gary Carrion-Murayari says not only was the museum struck by Tran's work in the Power House exhibit, the series they chose, "Raising Hell," fits into the themes of collaboration, improvisation and resistance that characterize much of the art at the coming Biennial.

"Although she is the youngest artist in 2010," he says, "Tam's photographs have a unique vision and a maturity that stood out among the hundreds of artists we looked at while researching for the exhibition."

Born in 1986, Tran and her family are from Hue, Vietnam, a city with a rich history including its role as a former dynasty capital (its monuments were added as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993). She and her family moved to Memphis, where they had relatives, when she was 6 and she has visited Vietnam only twice in recent years.

"I felt like a foreigner in my own country," she admits -- which perhaps explains in part the search for identity that runs through her work.

Tran graduated from the University of Memphis with a journalism degree, concentrating on visual and Internet aspects.

Photography, on the other hand, is a highly personal, intuitive expression. The digital, largely self-taught artist says her only training came through a handful of black-and-white photography classes at U of M.

"I do it for myself," Tran says. "Ninety percent of my work is for fun -- it's what I do -- and maybe 10 percent I get paid."

Much of her work deals with what she calls "self-definition through appearance," including the physical transformation of herself into different, often unrecognizable, self-portraits.

"They're me but it's almost like a guessing game," she says. "... It's hard to really explain myself. Everybody's analytical thinkers in my family and I'm not really into that. I can't think scientifically.

"I'm more of the creative being amongst them. My sisters are happy about it, but my parents kind of don't understand. They wanted me to be a pharmacist or something like that."

Tran says she will visit New York for the first time in February for the Biennial's opening and will return in May to hold a museum workshop for children.

At the Whitney, her work will join the likes of Memphis contemporary photography icon William Eggleston, who had a recent retrospective there, "William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Videos, 1961-2008."

Somewhat surprisingly, Eggleston's groundbreaking color photography is not an influence on Tran's own colorfully vibrant work.

"Not really," she says. "I just love playing with colors."

She will admit, however, that two other photographers largely noted for their black and white imagery and highly personalized, often philosophic subject matter have left an imprint on how she sees the world through a camera: Duane Michals and especially the challenging, exploratory portraiture of Francesca Woodman (1958-81).

Like those photographers, Tran is "great in lighting and use of shadow," according to David Wayne Brown, owner of Splash Creative, where Tran works as an art director. "She has real insight into America from someone who wasn't born here but was raised here. Her themes are really interesting because there's kind of a composite that I see between the modern world and how various people fit in it."

Tran will join a list of artists both well-known (George Condo, Charles Ray) and new at the Biennial, which is dedicated to "discovering emerging artists," according to a recent New York Times article that featured an image by Tran of her nephew called "Battle Cry."

Dr. Richard Lou, chairman of the University of Memphis's art department and a photographer himself, recalled Tran's pieces at Power House Memphis as "one of the gemstones" of that exhibit and says her selection by the Whitney is good not only for her career but for the Memphis art scene as a whole.

"That only proves the sort of vitality that's occurring here," he says. "What it also does is support the notion of how decentralized and globalized culture-making is. It's not so much New York and L.A. and Berlin, but it is really happening all over the place."

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