Mel Nguyen, Artist

As an artistically inclined teenager feeling bored and marooned in the suburbs of Minnesota, Mel Nguyen did what any millennial in her situation would do: She turned to the internet for creative stimulation. “Even as a high schooler I was looking at all these graphic design blogs, seeing how the field was changing, and thinking, wow,” she says. As soon as she enrolled as an art student at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, she started her own tumblr, showing off her experiments sliding from 2-D into to 3-D and back again. She managed to build such a following on the site that her work went viral in certain online art and design circles — so much so that it’s hard to believe she’s only 21, and won’t graduate until this spring.

It’s not at all hard to believe, on the other hand, that she found success on tumblr, of all places: Her work shares not only the site’s aesthetic but its stream-of-consciousness approach. “My practice has a lot to do with chain reactions and triggers,” Nguyen explains. “I’m triggered by materials or imagery, and then once I’ve done something, I find what interests me about it and move on to explore that. It’s a series of connected experiments: If A leads to B, then what about this other thing?” The same formula applies to her physical process as well. For a recent project, which dealt with the idea of objects whose forms imply a function they don’t necessarily possess, she began by making small, vague items resembling material tests, then photographed them, then made printed cutouts of them, which she integrated into another piece.

That project also explored her current fascination with prototypes, models, and retail display tactics, which can manifest in her installations as elements that look unfinished or fake, or that are hung from department store–style grid walls, even when they don’t resemble anything that would typically be for sale. “I’m interested in the line between a prototype and a completed product, and in the backend of production and staging,” Nguyen says. “Everything I make is trying to explore the structural possibilities between art and design, trying to find my way between them.” We sent photographer Debbie Carlos to her Minneapolis studio to take a closer look.