Seattle Magazine 2011 Spotlight Award: Troy Gua

POP EYE: Troy Gua turns pop culture into high art
Visual artist Troy Gua

Visual artist Troy Gua wants to be famous. His deadpan stare and signature slicked black topknot are unmistakable at local art gatherings—and often the subject of his own artwork. He’s hung large-scale photographs of himself, fashioned a small sculpture of himself urinating (after the famous “Manneken Pis” in Brussels), and even translated his face into a trademark emoticon: o(:-]}

“I appreciate artists who are showmen,” he says, listing Marcel Duchamp, Jeff Koons and Yves Klein among his greatest influences, “who are as famous as their art is.” Even as a kid, growing up three blocks from Sea-Tac airport, he was attracted to celebrity. He waited around in the Red Lion lobby to get autographs from visitors like L.A. Lakers players or Evel Knievel. He read Rolling Stone voraciously, worshipped Prince and impersonated Elvis.

Ironically, though you see a lot of Troy Gua in his work, you don’t learn much about his personal life. You wouldn’t know that for years he struggled with alcohol and drug abuse (something he’s now overcome, thanks in part to his wife Catherine), or that he has been through a divorce and the loss of both parents. You wouldn’t guess that, at 40 years old, he is in the process of beginning a second life. Luckily, Gua has a great sense of humor, and a cool wit is usually present his work. He’s used underwear, Facebook quotes and yearbook portraits to point out how the desire to be seen exists in all of us. But Gua doesn’t point an accusing finger—he suggests with a smile and a wink.

Since he decided to become a full-time artist five years ago, Gua has been gaining momentum in Seattle’s visual art scene, showing at local galleries that include Seattle Art Museum Gallery, SOIL and Vermillion. He’s also created commissioned work for Woodland Park Zoo, tackled the loss of war at Fulcrum Gallery in Tacoma and wrapped an entire house in plastic for Seattle’s Mad Homes project in July.

Gua initially earned the attention of Seattle’s visual art scene with his clever and colorful Pop Hybrid series. These celebrity portraits fuse cultural icons into Venn diagrams of persona: Ronald Reagan superimposed upon Ronald MacDonald; David Bowie blended with Michelangelo’s “David.” Gua stresses that these pairings are more than just punch lines; seeing the two people together elucidates the traits they have in common. The Pop Hybrids also recall Andy Warhol’s screen prints—Gua is unabashed about that, just as he is not ashamed to make salable art.

In this same vein, he’s working on a new series of vibrant pop-art portraits of celebrities and friends that he calls Colorbandz. “[These] are a distillation of identity, a ‘logo-ization’ of personality,” he says. Using digital photographs of faces, he distills the features down to strips of colored pixels. These become stripes of color that, surprising accurately, re-create that person’s visage as you might see it from a passing car. Look at the painting once and it appears to be stripes. Look again—and suddenly gray, pink and blue stripes reveal Bill Clinton.

It’s risky to make work about pop icons, avatars and trends—unpopular in traditional arts circles. But Gua wouldn’t have it any other way. “I’ve heard from critics that [my work is] soulless. Or it lacks humanity. You’re entitled to your opinion—but that is my humanity.”

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