Somewhere in the heart of Los Angeles, Julien Nguyen has been recreating a slice of post-war London bohemianism. “I’ve been thinking a lot about Lucian Freud and replicating his process, to a certain degree, by having friends sit for me,” he says. “I find that’s quite productive, practically and experientially.” He’s begun painting more from life and developing more of a traditional studio practice, working quickly and directly and learning how to build up the paint and sculpt a body from it. These are “muscular, or athletic exercises as much as anything else,” he says. Though perhaps the most fêted painter of his generation, and one whose works are already too much in demand, he’s not resting on his laurels just yet, nor is he travelling the world. Rather, he’s in his studio every day, pushing his uncanny technical ability even further, striving to approach the great masters; what brought him to Freud, he says, was a fascination with Rembrandt and a desire to create the kinds of textural effects that Rembrandt could. He is nothing if not ambitious.
What’s kept Nguyen with Freud, though, is an idea of “the romance of the artist’s life, of living in a kind of box and slowly recording whatever is around you that you find satisfaction or excitement in.” He’s confined, for the most part, to his studio, where his friends come sit in his Chinese chair by the window in varied states of undress (though he’s yet to paint a full nude, but soon, hopefully soon). Here, he can have his meals and sundries delivered to him and can build his own world to set down in oils and sometimes share fragments of on Instagram. Nguyen has spent, and will continue to spend, many months putting together a big, yet-tobe-announced New York show in September and, alongside these paintings of friends and lovers, is also working on some more carefully planned and complicated devotional images of traditional subjects: Saint John the Baptist, the Temptation of Christ, the Virgin Mary and, all being well, an Apollo the Python-Slayer on the beach in Los Angeles, painted en plein air in front of the waves.