“Repetition is the essential aspect of life and the natural world . . . In my work, repetition leads to contemplation. The repeated gesture, reflected and embodied in the carefully worked and re-worked lines in my art, gives us access to the meaning of our existence. This body of work combines simplicity and discipline while eliminates everything that is not essential to the work in order to capture life’s most profound energy and rhythm.” – LYNX Nguyen
I have always wondered at the connection between art and the spiritual. An expression of the very soul of a person for the world to see, I can think of no writing more sacred, no vision more prophetic than the work of an artist.
Atlanta-based artist “LYNX” doesn’t describe his work as spiritual, and yet, audiences will often express religious-like reverence when visiting one of his exhibits.
His work speaks to the triumph of mind over matter and the resilience of a man who celebrates his failures alongside his successes. After his initial and unsuccessful attempts at being an artist, LYNX has found an obsessive drive some compare or perhaps confuse with divine purpose.
He works crouched on the floor, power drill in hand, etching hundreds of thousands of one-inch lines onto thick paper, burlap and other materials. He never listens to music or amuses himself in any way during this intense creative process. He does not sleep, and he’s a chain coffee drinker as he commits to making his mind sharp and his body limber so that the pen he holds, which is strapped to a drill, will become not just a tool, but an extension of his body. He claims this kind of dedication is the sign of a true mark-maker.
“That’s why I use basic materials. Because those are things we use, so when people see, they see that’s the heart-to-heart connection. That’s my way of talking about world peace — that’s my way to talk about transforming the negative trend to positive. That’s the channel to let you talk about those higher things, but it come from a very basic fundamental thing. When I talk about mark-making you need to understand all angles of your mark-making, you need to be the master of your mark-making. The aiming to tell about mark-making.”
When he speaks about mark-making and about art in general, LYNX sounds like a wizened philosopher, or as some have jokingly dubbed him, “a Buddhist Baptist.” To LYNX, everyone is a mark-maker. The simple act of writing is a form of mark-making, although, like so many tasks, it is often done absent-mindedly without purpose or intention. In using commonplace materials like pen and paper to make high-end contemporary art, LYNX makes a statement about the importance of mindfulness and around the clock devotion to whatever task one sets out to achieve.
It may seem a fundamentalism kind of belief system, and it is. Everything about LYNX’s creative expression is fundamentalist and intentionally so. In his artistic statement, he shares:
“Repetition is the essential aspect of life and the natural world . . . In my work, repetition leads to contemplation. The repeated gesture, reflected and embodied in the carefully worked and re-worked lines in my art, gives us access to the meaning of our existence. This body of work combines simplicity and discipline while eliminates everything that is not essential to the work in order to capture life’s most profound energy and rhythm.”
How did he come to be this guru of mindfulness and discipline? Even in casual conversation, LYNX will point to the many failures, suffering and disappointments in his life as critical experiences that built character and revealed many of life’s truths.
A Rice Farmer turned Conceptual Artist
Linh Nguyen is LYNX’s given name. His father was a general commanding close to 2,000 soldiers in the fight for democracy in Vietnam. After the American troops left, and the country fell to Communism, his father was held in a concentration camp where he and other captives were to be “re-educated.” Every day, one of the men would be taken to the jungle and shot as a statement to the others. “My dad, he just wait there to get killed because everyday someone get killed.”
But LYNX, who was eight years old when they escaped the country, had no concept of Communism or government. “I love Vietnam. Back then, I was so free. The only memory that I remember is my grandfather put me on his shoulder just take us to work in the rice patty fields.” His was a family of farmers, and everyone — young, old, women, and children — was expected to work. “Everybody go out to work in the fields. You wake up 5 o’clock in the morning, and you come home six at night when the sun comes down. That’s all we do. We have no future. We are farmer.”
The U.S. government arranged to help LYNX’s father and other officers flee the country by ship. They left with little besides the clothes on their back, but they were thankful. “We were the lucky ones,” LYNX said.
It was the winter of 1993, “the storm of the century” when the Nguyen family arrived in Atlanta. Everything from the snow to the kind of clothes people wore was “shocking”, LYNX recalls.
Before immigrating to the U.S. LYNX had never been to school and scarcely knew how to write his name. He was picked on in school and experienced what he now calls wide-spread ‘discrimination.’ “Over here, going to school, even Laos people, they were bullying us, Black, White everybody. Every day I get beating. Yeah, it was horrible, but I appreciate it [now].”
Throughout his teenage years and young adult life, LYNX lacked direction and was devoid of purpose or meaning. To this day, he doesn’t consider himself artistic in the traditional sense, but in art class, one of his teachers believed he was a natural talent and advised him to go to art school.
It seemed his best option, so when he graduated, LYNX followed her suggestion and attended the Atlanta Art Institute for Video Game and Animation design.
This was to be the first of many failures in LYNX’s art career. Dissatisfied with the kind of work he was doing, LYNX dropped out and decided to make a living as a still life and portrait artist.
He tried in vain for eight tumultuous years. “I failed — I failed miserably! I didn’t sell a single piece of artwork, and I was not motivated. I don’t have the dream or anything like that.”
In retrospect, LYNX realizes his problem was that he had not defined his unique mark. He lacked originality and inspiration, and his results reflected as much.
The second time LYNX went to art school was different. Having received a full-ride scholarship to Georgia State University, he decided to give it his all; every task he attempted, every assignment he completed had to be a masterpiece. He graduated in 2011 with a BFA in Studio Art and went straight to the Savannah College of Art and Design for his master’s. As a graduate student, LYNX was introduced to contemporary art. It proved to be a pivotal moment.
“Something sparked in me. I say, no, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life . . . I want to makevisionary artwork,” he said.
To LYNX, visionary and contemporary arts are one and the same. Impressionism, Cubism, and other kinds of abstract or modern art, he believes, are often mistaken as contemporary art, when they are in fact, stamped to a particular time and place.
“Contemporary art is about the future,” says LYNX, who believes there is no fixed definition for contemporary art, as the style and form change with each generation. Once something is part of art history, he claims it is dated and therefore, no longer contemporary.
LYNX set forth a vision to create art that impacts audiences not because of its extravagant design, but because of the concept, and a method so odd, it is sure to break the mold. To fulfill that vision, LYNX has stripped his art of excess and frills and instead focuses on the most fundamental aspects, hoping to find an artery that would transfuse his ideas to the public.
Billions of pen-made marks — each “represents a breath, each represents a moment well spent.”
LYNX considers mark-making to be the backbone of all meaningful art. To him, it is an act of higher-purpose, one to which too many artists and people, in general, do not pay proper heed.
“Mark-making is not just mark-making. My mark-making is transform people’s lives. First, inspire discipline; and second, inspiring that sincerity, so when people are writing they don’t really focus on writing,” says LYNX.
Fine-tuning his mark was of utmost importance. He drew inspiration from the work of Yayoi Kasumi, the “dot lady” who has built her legacy on the simplest of marks. “That’s what I wanted to do because it’s so simple. But the next simplest thing is a line, because a line is made out of two dot. Two dot make a line — that’s one of the theory in geometry. So, I say, hey, I can’t be a dot, so I make two dots. So that’s when I discover the tally mark.”
To speak to the public in a medium used daily, LYNX chose pen and paper as his trademark materials. Initially, he did the work by hand, marking countless one-inch tally marks. It took him many long hours and sleepless nights to ink over the entire white surface.
It was tedious work, and LYNX was only able to produce a few pieces each semester. He once timed himself and found that it took an entire month to cover a 22×30 in. piece of paper by hand. Meanwhile, his professors and peers criticized his work and encouraged him to explore something new.
“I have explored it all my life. I have failed! They don’t know my failure; they don’t know my struggle. So, it come to that, and I always come up with more efficient way because this is contemporary — this is how you can make it work through day and night continuously thinking of more efficient way.”
That’s when the idea of using a power drill occurred to LYNX. He tinkered with the idea by taping a pen to the drill and trying various pens. The process was imperfect and less efficient than he hoped. One of the kinks was reloading speed, but he tweaked his method, trying different drills sizes and eventually replaced the tape with a rubber band, with which he could speedily load and reload three pens at once. After two years, he had developed the process he now uses to create his organic-looking marks.
“I alter the drill a little bit so you can’t tell the difference between a drill and a human,” LYNX said. “So, if a drill can do it better and more efficient, [then why not?] It still have that human quality, because the drill is like an extension of the hand, just like a paintbrush.”
Innovation. Mindfulness. Discipline. These are the pillars on which LYNX is creating his legacy. With his mark-making, he hopes to set positive trends in the art world and across the globe. One of his philosophies is that world peace starts with oneself.
By exhibiting his art across the country, he works to broadcast his message. Northern states like New York, Chicago and New Jersey, and Connecticut tend to be more receptive to his work, although he has also exhibited in states like Louisiana, the Carolina’s, and in Georgia galleries including the White Space, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and others.
“I’m going to say it straight forward — Atlanta is the worst art city because most galleries are conservative and not open to experimental. The galleries want to make money to survive, but they are not open to visionary,” says LYNX who has found his work is more popular in cities like New York , Chicago and Spartanburg, SC where his exhibit “Small Expansive Moments” is now on display at the Spartanburg Museum. “The trend is toward social media and technology; it’s rare to see people going to gallery now in Atlanta. Atlanta have the potential to be rival to New York and LA (California) art scene, but it’s not; that’s why I said it’s the worst.”
While some gallery owners have called LYNX’s work bland and boring, he has come to wear these labels with pride. He states that what sets his work apart is the process itself. This, LYNX argues, is what makes it visionary.
“That, to me, is going in the noble direction versus the petty mark-making. The always seeking for the higher thing, seeking for the better thing, seeking for improvement.”
Some audiences have been deeply affected by his work. In 2015, after he graduated from SCAD and started exhibiting, admirers told him they while looking at his work, they felt feelings of peace and stillness almost as if they were meditating.
“Not many people know that I have a background in religion,” LYNX said to a gathering of about 20 people huddled in the white spec, a small space adjacent to the White Space gallery in Inman Park. The audience, a collection of hipsters, local artists and collectors, showed genuine interest in his message.
While LYNX enjoys such discussions, he does not personally ascribe to the trend of meditation. He shared with the audience, “The Buddha actually told his followers not to meditate because there 101 wrong ways to meditate.” The kind of meditation LYNX is interested in requires constant practice. He believes one should always be looking inward, looking improvement; or as he calls it “Meditation 24/7.”
By making high-end art out of one-billion tally marks, LYNX hopes to put the ordinary in the spotlight. In so doing, he claims the mundane as a thing of beauty, for in his perspective, it is through repetition and persistent striving that legacies are created. “Put in the effort; forget about the result,” he says in an almost evangelical tone.
. . .
I find a ring of truth in LYNX’s teachings. Introspection during long car rides, or while running outdoors, or during any repetitious tasks, I’ve found, can lead to startling realizations about oneself. The need to stop, turn away or amuse is always there, but when you resist and stick to a single activity and truly focus on the act itself, it can be a therapeutic event.
I later commented to LYNX that I noticed an element of spirituality in his work. Although he was raised Buddhist and converted to Catholicism to marry his wife, Meiran, he doesn’t consider himself religious and denied any spiritual intent in his work.
But I pressed him, asking if art might be considered his form of religion. To my surprise, he answered, “Yeah, I guess so. It’s 24/7.”
The pictures in this article were taken at the following galleries: Broadway, New York City, N.Y.; Gallery 1740, Atlanta, Ga.; Mason Fine Art, Atlanta, Ga.; The Aviation Contemporary Art Center, Atlanta, Ga. and L1 Gallery, Atlanta, Ga.