APAHM 2018: Artist Phung Huynh Explores the ‘In-Betweennness of Being Asian American’

Phung Huynh, a Los Angeles-based artist, centers her work on what she calls the “in-betweenness of being Asian American.”

Often, art is evaluated and examined from a Western paradigm. As an undergrad art student, Huynh also believed this was the only way to see and create art, but sometime in her final undergrad year, she began questioning why she blindly accepted this status quo. “I found it interesting that when I made work with white people it was universal,” Huynh said. “But when I made work about Asianness, it became ethnic or tokenism.”

With this in mind, Huynh decided to break away from the old way of thinking about art and chose to create work that spoke more honestly to her own identity and her own lived experience both as an Asian American woman and as an individual. She examines standards (particularly beauty standards) in her most recent painting series entitled “Pretty Hurts.” When Huynh was beginning to explore an art style and art philosophy of her own, she remembered an old fascination she had with Chinese foot binding, which is often cited as one of the first forms of cosmetic surgery.

“Pretty Hurts” compares and contrasts antiquated Asian beauty standards such as small feet, pale skin and small breasts with Western beauty standards while also studying how the rising popularity of plastic surgery compounds issues that Asian and Asian American women may have about body image. Like most of her work, the series explores the “shadows and the corners and the slippery areas” of the Asian American experience.

Like many Asian American parents, Huynh’s mother and father wanted their daughter to become a doctor. Huynh hid her artistic ambitions from them growing up. Later, when she decided to forego a medical career and indulge her artistic spirit, she learned the value of being assertive with her art and her voice. “Life is too short,” Huynh said. “It’s not my parents getting in the way. It’s me. I need to make this decision.”

Since then, Huynh has taken the Los Angeles art world by storm, holding shows and galleries such as “Pretty Hurts” at CB1, “LA Heat” at the Chinese American Museum, nurturing budding artists as an associate professor of art at Los Angeles Valley Community College and even raising a family.

In her next work, she wants to examine the concept of home. Living in a diverse, dynamic city like Los Angeles inspires Huynh every day, and she wants her next project to reflect how recent events and sociopolitical movements have influenced the way people are able to think of Los Angeles as a home.

When Huynh thinks about what legacy she wants to leave behind, her mind wanders to her children and her students. The best advice for budding young artists, she believes, is a piece of wisdom gleaned from an older colleague: “It doesn’t matter what people think about my work. I’m going to keep making this art.”

Huynh has produced public works of art for the city of Los Angeles. In 2014, she created a series of murals for the Los Angeles Metro to be displayed in stations in the city of El Monte in the San Gabriel Valley and Laurel Canyon in Hollywood Hills. The murals depicted traditional auspicious Chinese imagery but also paid homage to the city’s multicultural history. Despite her art’s explicit Asian influence, Huynh said her works are purely self-expression. “There’s so many labels thrown at me: Asian American, woman,” Huynh said. “But ultimately, I’m Phung.”


This article is a part of a series of portraits and stories, in celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, on API women who use their perspectives and voices to speak up and impact their communities. Read more here.