Ann Phong likes to collect discarded objects — soda cans, pieces of plastic and metal, old circuit boards, obsolete cell phones — and turn them into art.
She incorporates these found items into her artworks, which are typically thickly painted acrylics on panel or canvas. Many of her paintings are circular, echoing the shape of the planet.
“People don’t value the Earth. They trash it,” said the Cerritos resident and longtime art instructor at Cal Poly Pomona. “They hurt the environment. I put used parts into my art and bring out the message that I want. There’s a relationship between humans and nature. If we don’t balance it, we ruin it.”
The Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton is currently showcasing an exhibition of Phong’s recent works, the earliest completed in 2013. “Ann Phong” features more than 50 sculptural paintings by the Vietnamese American artist, who once lived in Anaheim and obtained her master’s of fine art degree from Cal State Fullerton.
The exhibit runs through Dec. 30.
“This is one of my favorite art exhibitions in the 18 months I’ve been here,” said Farrell Hirsch, chief executive officer of the Muckenthaler, which is also known as “the Muck.”
“We’re especially proud of this one. It’s particularly heart-warming to see this exhibit on our walls at this time.”
Phong was born in Saigon, Vietnam, in 1957. In her early 20s, she fled Communist Vietnam and sought refuge in Malaysia and the Philippines. In 1982, she immigrated to Southern California, where she has lived ever since. She has been painting and making art for more than 30 years. She has taught drawing and painting at Cal Poly Pomona for 22 years.
“The sea saved me,” she says in the introductory text panel that welcomes visitors to her show at the Muck. Indeed, water is a constant image and theme in her work. Yet the beautiful blues and greens often give way to the toxic sludge of oranges, purples, yellows and browns, along with ample accumulations of detritus.
In her work “Fishes in the Water” (2018), one can make out tiny fish swimming in liquid, yet the water has been polluted by orange and brown and sickly green chemicals, waste and discarded objects, such as plastic container tops and a spiky rubber child’s ball. It’s somewhat depressing, yet strangely beautiful at the same time.
In her most recent work, Phong uses copious pieces of tech trash — old wires, cell phone cases, plastic outlet covers, junked computer parts. In fact, a couple of her paintings, both titled “Yesterday’s Precious, Today’s Trash” (from 2014 and 2018), are achieved on panels that are shaped like smart phones.
“We chase after technology too much,” Phong said. “We are willing to throw the old phone away and buy the new phone. There’s a lot of computer (stuff) and technology in the paintings. They become the window, that link between yesterday and today.”
Muckenthaler curator Matthew Leslie first discovered Phong in a small show called “Prayers from L.A.” Leslie included Phong’s work in a 2014 exhibit he curated at Muzeo in Anaheim called “Transcending Trash: The Art of Upcycling.”
“I knew how amazingly prolific she was, and wanted to see what it would look like if we filled the entire galleries here, and now I know,” said Leslie, who also curated this one-woman show. “It’s every color of the rainbow.”
Leslie said Phong’s work contains a variety of different media and “at first, it sort of looks like mixtures of everything and anything.” But further examination will reveal that, “Thematically, I think she does choose pretty carefully what goes into her paintings.”
For instance, the smart-phone shaped paintings contain parts of cell phones in them, from outdated chargers to keypads to useless and mysterious circuitry.
Phong is an active board member of the Vietnamese American Arts and Letters Association, which organizes art exhibits, readings and the annual Viet Film Fest. She served as president of the Santa Ana-based nonprofit organization from 2009 to February 2018, nearly a decade.
“We try to promote art to everybody, not just the Vietnamese community,” she said. “Every year, we have the Viet Film Fest. I learn a lot — that’s not my field. But we support a lot of new, young filmmakers. And a lot of female filmmakers.”
In a small side gallery near the Muck’s main art galleries, Phong has crafted an interactive work called “The Clean Water” (2018). Visitors may peel off a piece of ocean-colored canvas, glue it to a sheet of white paper on a pedestal, and take their own creation home. Each sheet is pre-signed and dated by Phong.
“Each time a piece of canvas strip is removed from the round painting, the composition of the artwork is changed,” Phong writes in a text panel next to the work. “Piece by piece we take from our Earth and soon a bare canvas will be all that’s left. Individually, our choices seem insignificant, but together we can make big changes, good or bad.”
It’s a message that Phong wants to convey to her students, those who view and interact with her art, and anyone else who’s willing to listen.
Richard Chang is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC, focusing on the visual arts. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.