Tuazon, Oscar (b. 1975)

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 12/05/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10987
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Oscar Tuazon is an artist and sculptor who has exhibited widely in Europe and New York as well as in Washington. He was born and raised in Indianola on the Kitsap Peninsula. He was interested in drawing and painting while young, but quickly switched to sculpture when he attended Cooper Union in New York. He pursued his art in New York for several years and briefly moved to Tacoma. In 2007, Tuazon won a prestigious Seattle art prize, the Betty Bowen Award, and had his first major solo show in Oslo, Norway. He went on to show his art at the Venice Biennale and the Whitney Biennial. In Seattle, Tuazon and his brother Eli Hansen (b. 1979) collaborated in 2008 on exhibits at the Seattle Art Museum and the Howard House gallery. Tuazon lived in Paris for several years and helped start a storefront exhibition space there. He is noted for having what critics called a do-it-yourself or handyman aesthetic. He moved to Los Angeles, and also bought a cabin along the Hoh River on Washington's Olympic Peninsula. In 2014, he was awarded a commission for a public artwork as part of the the redevelopment of Seattle's waterfront.

Soaking Up Art on the Kitsap Peninsula 

Oscar Tuazon was born Oscar Hansen on July 9, 1975, in a geodesic dome his parents built in the woods at Indianola, Kitsap County, not far from Kingston on the Kitsap Peninsula. Parents John and Annie Hansen were bookbinders and made blank sketchbooks, which they sold in bookstores in Seattle and elsewhere. The family moved several times while Oscar was growing up, but always stayed within the Indianola area.

While attending North Kitsap High School, Oscar became interested in the culture of the Suquamish Tribe, whose Port Madison Indian Reservation encompasses parts of Indianola. The Hansens were not tribal members but they often went to powwows and other cultural events. As a sophomore in high school, Oscar convinced the school to allow him to take Lushootseed, the tribe's Coast Salish language, as his foreign language. He took a correspondence course with a linguist at the University of British Columbia. He also took part in a weekly language group, made up of both tribal members and non-members, who would get together and practice the language. Once, Oscar and his father visited a tribal elder, who had spoken the language as a child:

"He hadn't heard it from age 5, and we came in and started speaking. Of course, it was nothing like the Lushootseed he remembered -- we were very clumsy -- but he could understand it, and it came back. ... To listen to him speak, that kind of direct connection to a living language, was really powerful" (Kershner interview).

He soaked up art from his parents and he took art classes at North Kitsap High School. He also learned traditional woodcarving techniques from tribal artists, including Larry Ahvakana, who was making a sign for a new baseball field out of a massive slab of 500-year-old cedar. He let Oscar help him carve it into a basket pattern of decorative squares.

"He showed me how to to do this and he actually gave me the key to his studio and I'd go there and work on it whenever I had time, mostly in the evenings. I'd be completely alone, just carefully carving out these squares in this basket pattern, with these great curved carving knives that he had. So that was a kind of an apprenticeship" (Kershner interview).

Oscar would regularly take the ferry across to Seattle to take drawing classes and other art classes at a community center. He also liked to write. Music was another of his high-school passions and he was particularly influenced by the Seattle grunge scene. He saw Nirvana at the Seattle Center when he was 17 and "from then on, it was all about denim and flannel" ("How Do I Look?"). He was the lead singer in his own band, The Dorks, "but I really had no aptitude at all" (Kershner interview).

Deep Springs to Cooper Union 

After graduating from North Kitsap High School, he attended Deep Springs College, a tiny, 26-student alternative college in California, in the desert near the Nevada border. Tuazon later said it was a "great experience for me," but he left after only six months because it was an all-male school (Kershner interview). He had met a young woman, a pianist, and together they bought a Ford Econoline van, put a piano in the back, and traveled around the country for months. By this time, he had decided he wanted to become an artist.

"I guess a lot of it comes from how I grew up and where I came from. At the time, I was probably reading a lot of art magazines, and I was kind of wanting to see that firsthand" (Kershner interview).

So he applied to several different schools and got into one of his top choices, Cooper Union in New York City, in 1995. "Really excited to go to New York City" and to experience the city's art culture, he started out being a painter, but during his first year, "I realized pretty quickly that I was more interested in sculpture," because it was a more "wide open" medium (Kershner interview). In the sculpture department at Cooper Union, he was imbued with "this kind of incredible and maybe delusional belief in the power of an artwork to do something in the world" ("Social Register"). He was also interested in film and took a number of film classes. During this period, he met and married Lan Tuazon, and changed his name from Oscar Hansen to Oscar Tuazon. The couple would later be divorced, but he kept the last name.

Tuazon graduated from Cooper Union in 1999 and struggled for a number of years to find an entry into the New York art world. In 2001, he was accepted into the Whitney Museum of American Art Studio Program, an independent-study program with between 20 and 25 students, including artists, curators, and critics. Tuazon supported himself for several more years in New York by working at bars and restaurants and interning for established artists. He was also working on his own art and was included in a few small shows in New York, but nothing that attracted much attention.

"I'd Rather Be Gone" 

Around 2005, he moved back to Washington. His marriage had split up, and "I didn't have a job and things just weren't going well for me" -- he crashed at friends' apartments and even slept "on the street a little bit" (Kershner interview). He soon moved in with his younger brother Eli Hansen in Tacoma. His brother was a glassblower and glass artist who was deeply involved with the state's burgeoning glass-art scene. Tuazon worked in a bar at night and at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma during the day. He and Eli started working together on artworks in their backyard. Meanwhile Tuazon continued to work on his own art, and in the spring of 2007 received his first major break, a solo show at the Standard, a gallery in Oslo, Norway. Tuazon had a Norwegian friend from the Whitney program, who introduced Tuazon to a Norwegian gallery director who was about to open his own gallery in Oslo. Tuazon was commissioned to go to Oslo and create one of the Standard's first shows, titled "I'd Rather Be Gone."

While in Europe, Tuazon went to Paris and staged a small art project not in a gallery, but at a hotel. As part of the project, he "built a kind of a bar out of cardboard, very kind of trashy cardboard construction" and was serving drinks out of it (Kershner interview). He was single again and met a woman named Dorothee Perret. He took her phone number and returned to Oslo.

DIY in Paris 

Shortly after that, Tuazon made what he called the "impulsive, spontaneous decision" to move to Paris (Kershner interview). He moved in with Dorothee, who would later become his wife. He had no money and no job, yet he was beginning to build a reputation for his art. He called up a French artist, who he had met at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, and landed a job as an artist's assistant. However, helping someone else do art was not what Tuazon had in mind. Despite the fact that he had only done one solo show and made one sale, he said to himself, "Maybe I'll just quit my job and concentrate on my work" (Kershner interview).

He called it "a struggle for a long time" (Kershner interview). Yet he soon obtained a storefront space in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris. He and some friends set to work transforming it into an art space. Coming from New York, he was accustomed to a lot of "artist-organized spaces, not really galleries in the conventional sense," but spaces with "vitality and energy" (Kershner interview). He called it a "DIY experience," meaning do-it-yourself (Kershner interview). Paris, in contrast, had an art scene "defined by big institutions and big galleries" (Kershner interview).

"There wasn't that DIY attitude," said Tuazon. "So I thought, we've got a little storefront space and we all want to make exhibitions. Why don't we just do exhibitions here?" (Kershner interview). He and his collaborators started creating exhibitions at the storefront, which they named Castillo/Corrales, and created "a lot of energy" (Kershner interview).

Making a Name Back Home 

At about the same time, Tuazon was making a name for himself back in his home state. While living in Tacoma, and on subsequent trips home from Europe, he had worked with his brother Eli to create an exhibit titled VOluntary Non vUlnerable for Bodgers and Kludgers, an art cooperative in Vancouver, British Columbia. A curator from the Seattle Art Museum visited it, bought one of the pieces for the museum's permanent collection and nominated Tuazon for the Betty Bowen Award, one of Seattle's oldest and most prestigious art awards. In September 2007 Tuazon won the award, which carried an $11,000 cash prize. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer noted that "he likes duct tape and car parts" and that his work encompassed what he called "an intangible architecture, not a design practice but a lifestyle that shapes the space around it" ("Oscar Tuazon Wins ..."). He was still relatively unknown in the Seattle art scene -- the PI story about the award included the line "Who is Oscar Tuazon?" -- but that was about to change.

In 2008, during visits from Paris, he and Eli put together two exhibitions that gained the attention of Seattle's art world. The first was called Tent, at the Howard House gallery, and it consisted of a plastic tarp hanging against a gallery wall. PI art critic Regina Hackett called it "makeshift, portable and cheap" -- which was part of its appeal:

"Any 5-year-old with a step ladder and heavy-lifting help from parents could make it, just as any tyke could put bicycle seat and handlebars together to make Picasso's bull. Children could, but they don't. In the world, the people hanging big plastic tarps from trees need the shelter. In a gallery against a wall, it's curtain cover for a window that isn't there, a metaphor for the fate of loner aspirations in the 21st century" ("When Brothers ...").

Hackett called Tuazon and Hansen "self-sufficient loners" with a "core handyman aesthetic" and a "backwoods lyricism, rough but effective" ("When Brothers ..."). That backwoods element was even more evident in their next 2008 Seattle exhibition, one titled "Kodiak" at the Seattle Art Museum. Their initial idea was "to create a space that, while you were in the gallery, you were forced to imagine this other remote place" (Kershner interview). So they trekked to one of the most remote places imaginable, a tiny island off of Alaska's Kodiak Island, spent a week there with a chainsaw, "and built this very primitive structure out there" of tree slabs and a plastic tarp (Kershner interview).

They displayed a photo of it in their Seattle Art Museum exhibit and re-created just a suggestion of it, including an entire massive tree trunk suspended from wall to wall. Jen Graves, art critic for The Stranger, wrote, "The implication is that you can go there and visit, and at the same time the rickety appearance and ridiculously remote location seem inherently poised to question the sanity of anyone making the trip" ("The Invasion ..."). Seattle Times art critic Sheila Farr wrote:

"The work is a brainy marriage of funk and minimalism that thrills curators and insiders with its impeccable art-historical DNA. On the other hand, some casual viewers might get the urge to tear their hair out. If somebody found Hansen and Tuazon's taped-together dirty plastic 'Tent' crammed in their garage (instead of hanging on the wall at Howard House, where it is priced at $16,000), they'd likely haul it to the Dumpster" ("Artists Connect ...").

Nevertheless, Farr called them "the hot new thing" ("Artists Connect ..."). Writing in May 2008, Graves said, "Just over a year ago, the names Eli Hansen and Oscar Tuazon were on the lips of exactly nobody. Today, there may as well be a banner over the entrance to Seattle with 'ELI AND OSCAR' emblazoned on it. This city is in the throes of Eli and Oscar mania" ("The Invasion ...").

European Exhibitions 

Yet Tuazon returned to his home and family in Paris. Most of his subsequent exhibitions were in Europe, including a milestone 2010 solo show at the Kunsthalle Bern in Switzerland. The exhibition space consisted of several rooms of different sizes and he wanted to connect all of them. He came up with a solution that was simple and audacious:

"So I just designed a large structure that passed through the walls, this kind of massive timber construction, and at that point where I needed to pass through the walls, I just cut a hole in the walls -- these massive brick walls. It was a structure that really penetrated and really altered the space. It was kind of overwhelming, on a massive scale" (Kershner interview).

He said this project became his working template for many subsequent works: "Design a project and go and do everything on-site in the exhibition space" (Kershner interview).

One of his next major pieces, ILLUMInations, for the 54th Venice Biennale in 2010, used that template, but outdoors. Tuazon designed and built two large concrete-slab structures on the lawn, under trees. One was a simple stage and the other was an enclosure with oddly tilted walls that people could walk through. He later said, "If you wanted to experience it as an artwork you could, but it worked just as well as a place to sit and talk" ("Social Register").

"The experience of working outside and creating a space like that was really exciting, and since then, I have been working more and more outdoors in public space," Tuazon recalled (Kershner interview).

Public-Art Commissions 

Tuazon was invited to exhibit in the 2012 Whitney Biennial in New York. He designed and built a series of modular pieces -- gates, walls, staircases, doors, and hallways -- which he put together as "a strange maze you could walk through" (Kershner interview). He installed that on the ground floor of the Whitney Museum. Then he took it apart and reassembled it on the fourth floor as an elevated, rickety runway for an art event/fashion show by his friend and fellow artist K8 Hardy. The event functioned as a kind of parody and comment on the standard fashion show.

In 2012, Tuazon moved from Paris to Los Angeles, partly because he could rent a "huge garage or warehouse" as a studio for a reasonable price, which had proven impossible in Paris. Also, he believed that the Los Angeles art scene had "a kind of momentum" that he wanted to be part of (Kershner interview). He chose not to base his studio in Seattle or Tacoma, because he felt the Seattle art scene had lost some of its energy since 2007. However, he and his family did buy a cabin on the Hoh River on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, where they spent part of every year.

On July 19, 2012, Tuazon unveiled three outdoor sculptures, commissioned by New York's Public Art Fund, at Brooklyn Bridge Park near the eastern base of the bridge. The sculptures, titled People, all involved tree trunks and were designed to contrast with the monumental Manhattan skyline across the East River. One trunk supported a basketball hoop and concrete handball wall; another trunk concealed a small fountain; and a third trunk emerged from a concrete cube. The New York Times called it "a semiabstract meditation on the never-ending competition between natural and urban" (Smith).

"They were supposed to be a six-month temporary project, but they were popular and they assimilated really well in the park," said Tuazon. "So the park hung on to them for a year and a half" (Kershner interview).

In 2014, the City of Seattle's Office of Arts and Culture selected Tuazon as one of several artists to create public art projects for the Waterfront Seattle project. This was part of of a larger public works project which involved replacement of the Alaskan Way viaduct with a tunnel and replacement of the crumbling Alaskan Way seawall. In October 2014, as he was developing a concept for his project, Tuazon said he had long "felt such a connection" towards Elliott Bay and the waterfront, and that the project would be a chance for him to tap into his Northwest roots (Kershner interview).

As of late 2014, Tuazon continued to live and work in Los Angeles, spending part of the year at his Olympic Peninsula cabin on the Hoh River.

Sources: Jim Kershner telephone interview with Oscar Tuazon, October 28, 2014, transcript in possession of Jim Kershner, Spokane, Washington; Jen Graves, "The Invasion of Elar," The Stranger, May 1, 2008 (www.thestranger.com); Jen Graves, "The First Artists on the Waterfront," Ibid., March 26, 2014; Skye Sherwin, "Artist of the Week 98: Oscar Tuazon," The Guardian, July 28, 2010 (www.theguardian.com); Regina Hackett, "When Brothers Eli Hansen and Oscar Tuazon Deliver the Bad News, It's Good," Seattle-Post-Intelligencer, April 24, 2008 (www.seattlepi.com); Regina Hackett, "Oscar Tuazon Wins Betty Bowen Award," September 26, 2007, SeattlePI.com blog accessed October 24, 2014 (http://blog.seattlepi.com/art/2007/09/26/oscar-tuazon-wins-betty-bowen-award/); " Permanent Artworks," City of Seattle Office of Arts and Culture website accessed October 24, 2014 (http://www.seattle.gov/arts/publicart/waterfront_permanent.asp); Aisha Christison and Thomas Shickle, "Oscar Tuazon Interview," Institute of Contemporary Arts website accessed October 24, 2014 (http://www.ica.org.uk/sites/default/files/downloads/Oscar%20Tuazon%20Interview.pdf); "How Do I Look? Oscar Tuazon, Artist, 35," interview by Charlotte Philby, The Independent, June 26, 2010 (www.independent.co.uk); "Social Register: Corresponding with Oscar Tuazon," Cooper Union website accessed October 28, 2014 (http://cooper.edu/about/news/social-register-corresponding-with-oscar-tuazon); Sheila Farr, "Artists Connect Creatively as Only Brothers Can," The Seattle Times, May 9, 2008 (http://seattletimes.com); Roberta Smith, "Ideally, Striving for an Organic Fusion," The New York Times, July 18, 2013 (http://www.nytimes.com/).

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