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photo-eye Book Reviews: Underdog Suite

Underdog Suite, Photographs by Cat Tuong Nguyen. 
Published by Scheidegger & Spiess, 2009.

Underdog Suite
Reviewed by Nicholas Chiarella
Cat Tuong Nguyen Underdog Suite
Photographs by Cat Tuong Nguyen with essays by Burkhard Meltzer and Nadine Olonetzky. Scheidegger & Spiess, 2009. Hardbound. 312 pp., 545 color and 10 halftone illustrations, 8x10-1/2.

Cat Tuong Nguyen's photographs and collages are a play on the construction of meaning in a world at once immediately traversable and so often utterly fragmented. Underdog Suite functions very much as a musical suite, working straightforward photographs, some almost snapshots, in concert with diorama-like arrangements of exploding toys and a patchwork of clipped headlines, painted-over newspaper images, rinds of fruit, and montage.

Underdog Suite, by Cat Tuong Nguyen. Published by Scheidegger & Spiess, 2009.

The book is playful in its seriousness, straying from brief interludes of definitive statement to wander a fugue of travel and politics. In "Terror Market," a tiny installation of a toy bus marked "international airport" is rocked by the firecracker-fueled matchbox truck detonating beside it, all before a backdrop of American dollar bills. In another shot, titled "Death Resort," tiny airplanes crash through plywood adorned with clipped photographs of magazine starlets and a spatter of fake blood. A statement is clearly being made, whether one considers the images as coming from a post-Vietnam or a post-9/11 world. But Nguyen's meaning is also personal, obscure, manifold.

Underdog Suite, by Cat Tuong Nguyen. Published by Scheidegger & Spiess, 2009.

Underdog Suite, by Cat Tuong Nguyen. Published by Scheidegger & Spiess, 2009.

Interpolated with childlike reconstructions of global terror are simple photographs of airports and airplane wings (actual airplanes), ocean sunrises and sunsets, tourists and vacationers, even cherry blossoms. These photographs are entirely absent of irony or bitterness, carrying a beauty and weight all their own, rather than working to form punch-lines to an unbearable joke. Nguyen works these images into an investigation of the coexistence of the macabre and the mundane, locating in each a strange attractiveness. In gathering together the many elements of the book, it is difficult to settle on a single, precise meaning. Nevertheless, the feeling of Underdog Suite is more that of a puzzle than an oeuvre in disarray. The individual pieces vary greatly, even toward contradiction, but the overall combination is one irrevocably interconnected, and the meaning of the whole so much greater than its parts.—Nicholas Chiarella

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Nicholas Chiarella is the imaging specialist at the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His poems and photographs have appeared in Santa Fe Trend, BathHouse, Slideluck Potshow Santa Fe, and other venues. He is a member of Meow Wolf artist collective, contributing technical and design skills to performance and art installations. Chiarella graduated from the St. John's College GI program in 2007. He can be reached at