If Dalí had access to Photoshop in the early 1900s, then perhaps his paintings might have looked a little similar to the work of Khôi Bảo Phạm. In a similar fashion of oddity and surrealism, Khôi’s digital works depict strange lands, mind-bending objects and lucid textures: a cake filled with lustrous gold; a rose peeking through a chained fence; an elongated metallic fork gliding through the cloudy sky; and a piece of metal hanging by rope are just a few examples. “Once I begin a piece,” says Khôi, “the reality in my reference becomes distorted through experimentation by manipulating colours and shapes in Photoshop. This is my favourite part of the process because I’m able to freely deviate from my initial vision and potentially discover something new along the way.”
Khôi was born in Saigon, Vietnam, and immigrated with his family to San Jose, California at the age of four. At 13, Khôi was working with his father (who spoke little English at the time) in his small photography studio, assisting with the operations as his dad shot studio portraiture and documented the lives of the “diverse clientele that surrounded his business”. This included liquor stores, cheap motels and Vietnamese coffee shops: “reflective of the area, our clientele varied from amateur models to weddings to sex workers,” says Khôi. Often translating for his father, Khôi would mingle with a broad mix of people and characters, which inadvertently had an influence on his view of the world, not to mention the exposure to new ways of thinking and communicating. This was also the moment that Khôi learned how to use Photoshop and, upon entering high school, was adept in the medium of communications and post-production because of these experiences.
“The majority of my teenage years were spent at the studio, making it difficult to maintain a social life or do well in school,” he continues to tell It’s Nice That. “It can be extremely strenuous working with your family at a young age, especially coming from an immigrant household, and this made my relationship with my dad extremely turbulent.” Khôi ended up being homeless for a brief period at the age of 18, but luckily moved in with a friend whose family had a house in Brooklyn – which is where his career in post-production kicked off.
As time went on, Khôi realised that his heart wasn’t quite aligned with photography post-production, even though it paved the way for a solid understanding of photo techniques and digital skills. A few years ago, for instance, he landed on a new medium that better suited his creative mindset. “This discovery came about when I realised the art I was looking at through my computer screen, especially the ones that looked impossibly painted, were just an assembly of pixels, and pixels can be replicated and manipulated.” From this moment onwards, Khôi started experimenting with digital painting and soon enough he built an entire portfolio replete with works of this kind – the Dali-equse imagery that also gives a nod to the influences of anime, including Mind Game, directed by Masaaki Yuasa and anything produced by Studio Trigger.
Oftentimes, Khôi will draw from the everyday moments around him, like the rain dripping from a window after a stormy evening. When he sees something intriguing, he’ll snap it with his phone and store it for reference. But there’s a lot more going on than what’s perceived on the surface; he fills his explicitly visceral pieces with emotion and experience. Power Forms in Sadness is a fine example of this, that presents a bathroom sink and mirror where the reflection is blurry and blue. It’s a personal piece that was crafted during 2020’s quarantine, “when I was overcome with emotions due to complete isolation,” he recalls. “Adding salt to the wound, my seven year relationship had just ended, further intensifying my loneliness. At the time, I lacked the mental toolset to soothe how I was feeling and so I felt like the immense sadness I held was overflowing. Sadness can cloud connection with yourself and others; this piece is a reflection of that state of being.” It’s also a mediation of how art can alleviate these kinds of emotions, proving it to be remedial and effective in documenting a pivotal moment in time.
Elsewhere, Khôi made a piece that’s dedicated to the victims of the Atlanta spa shooting, which occurred in March earlier this year. Titled Strawberry Fresh Cream Cake, it’s a colourful depiction of a garden setting, lightly toned and employing a mix of light and pastel hues to illustrate his compositions. The flowers – seven in total – each represent the seven victims, while the strawberries are symbolic for Xiaojie Tan, one of the victims, whose “favourite cake was strawberry fresh cream cake,” he adds. The piece is at once activist as it is responsive. “As an Asian immigrant, their deaths hit home for me as it echoed the reality that no matter how much we try to assimilate, we are still not accepted or valued. And yet, we stand resilient and persevere. In this defiance, I’m reminded of Ocean Vuong’s words [A Vietnamese American poet]: ‘Let no one mistake us for the fruit of violence – but that violence, having passed the fruit failed to spoil it.’”
Khôi Bảo Phạm: Tooth Ache (Copyright Khôi Bảo Phạm, 2021)
About the Author
Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent the last seven years as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.