Tom Ngo

Tom Ngo
Le Gallery
November 13 – December 5, 2015

In Tom Ngo’s third solo exhibition at Le Gallery, One and One, the artist traces the predictable path of contemporary practice by pushing his creative focus further into the conceptual realm. His work is still thoroughly steeped in his day-to-day profession, architecture. The current body could be evidence of an existential quandary by an extraordinarily thoughtful and creative practitioner stuck in a profession, which, like so many others, is more glamorous to imagine performing than it is in which to actually engage. Operating in the domain of design, that laudable world where art and science interact, is it possible that Ngo feels like conservative clients or frugal operations obstruct his creativity? Unstuck from the strict adherence to functionality of his day-to-day operations, One and One is Ngo’s endeavor to completely reject functionality as well his own fervent call to creative arms.

In his artist statement, he cites a quote by Richard Serra that “[a]rt is purposefully useless.” It’s easy to see how an architect would admire Serra’s imposing structures, and it seems plausible that Ngo has taken this comment to heart. In previous exhibitions, the artist’s visions abounded in architectural fancy. Like the drawings of an art student excitedly pushing the boundaries of a newly perfected perspective, Ngo’s previous pieces seemed to be the result of the serious architect at play. In this current show, he is operating with soberly calculated conceptualization.  

The first piece, Rowhouse (2015), consists of a set of 15 screen-printed images representing a fictitious design development (DD) document for a structure that could be created within storage containers.  Ngo’s intention here is to blend the real and the unreal. No element of the DD is missing: we see the building from all angles, fully to scale, including all measurements and written disclaimers. The structure however, if realized, would be impermanent and impractical. The premeditated consequence of this is that the DD becomes the final product, rather than a draft purposed in preparation for a final incarnation. A far-fetched design vanquishes intentionally implausible plans. The DD, though it resembles something mundane and formatted, inarguably becomes art.

Dividing the gallery is one of Ngo’s somewhat rare installations, A Space to Pass the Time (2015). The piece highlights the overarching trend towards efficiency within contemporary design, which Ngo views as a painful departure from the more poetic choices made by the architectural masters. Diaphanous white fabric is suspended from a rod shaped to resemble the iconic, yet artfully impractical, Aalto Vase.  Like the vase it represents, A Space to Pass the Time has little opportunity for function but to compliment the right space.

Little Temple 1 and Little Temple 2 (2015) most resemble Ngo’s earlier work and are the most representational works in the show. In the two separate gouache paintings, the interior and exterior of a radially symmetrical square house are shown. Drawn to evoke Bramante’s Tempietto in Rome, the needless repetition of the common building elements easily evoke a structure created for ritual. That said, by using the most prosaic of building materials, Ngo ensures that the redundancy and quixotic features of this imaginary building are what push it into the sphere of art.

The last series of works, Movement 1, Movement 2 and Movement 3 (2015) are created using a batch of disco-era Letraset the artist gleaned during a renovation of his office space.  The dimensions of each piece are measured accurately, rather than to the scale of any spurious future construction. The flat blocks of applied colour make the representations difficult to read as structures. This resulting abstraction parallels Ngo’s pursuit to elevate the status of his drawings above the structures they portray.

Ngo’s precise blend of idea and execution categorically confirms this body of work as contemporary art. One simply hopes this creative mind doesn’t give up on architecture as a medium for inspired invention. Minimalist architecture may appear too functional to some to be classified as art. Maybe it can be argued however, that regardless of creative designation, a creatively consummated marriage of pattern and purpose is just as sacred.