Susan Chen

Susan Chen (b. 1992 in Hong Kong, SAR, currently lives and works in New York, NY) received her MFA from Columbia University in 2021, and her BA from Brown University in 2015. Previously she had a solo exhibition at Meredith Rosen Gallery, New York, NY in August 2020. She is a 2020 Hopper Prize Winner and a 2019 AXA Art Prize finalist.
October 19, 2021
Tell us about your practice.
I currently paint sitters who are members of the Asian diaspora, and whom I find through the Internet via social media and community forums. Via painting, I’m able to explore the psychology of race and concepts of community, immigration, prejudice, identity, family, longing, love, and loss. I am curious to discover how painting can be used to survey communities at work and am driven by the political potential of figurative painting to enact social change through increased visibility and representation.
Can you tell us about what prompted you to do the portrait series for your current show, “I’m Not a Virus”?
In the first months of the pandemic, I witnessed family and friends who were closest to me being personally affected by COVID-related racism and being Asian. At the same time, I learned of Asians living in France who were facing similar anti-Asian incidents, and was touched by their Je Ne Suis Pas Un Virus campaign in response. For the rest of the year, I followed these hate crimes closely online on a weekly basis, discovering that a lot of this news would be reported on smaller channels but less so on mainstream media. 
I was curious to survey how other Asians living in America/Asian Americans were being affected locally, and so invited sitters to participate in my painting project via social media open calls and connecting with various Asian American community groups online.
Can you talk about how you consider the objects and environment in the paintings?
The objects and environment are often tied to the personal stories shared with me by my sitter during our Zoom painting session. When I was painting Devon Matsumoto from Sunnyvale, CA, for example, he shared stories with me about how his mother would often make him Spam Musubis to take to school as a child, and we initially bonded over our love for the Spam Musubi. I went on to discover the fascinating history and origin of the Spam Musubi, and its ties to Hawaii and early Japanese immigration, in which Devon’s family was also a part of. Being a 5th generation Japanese whose great-great-grandparents immigrated through Hawaii and survived the internment camps in Utah, he still gets asked to this day “Where are you really from.” 
We talked about the universal Asian American frustration of what it means to belong in America. The objects in my work—from a nail polish bottle, a Hello Kitty toy, to bubble tea—can often seem like generic, mundane or stereotypical items on the surface, but are often things that hold significant socio-political histories for how they’ve come to affect the lives of my sitters and other Asian Americans.
Do you find your approach to self-portraits differs from how you would approach portraits of a sitter?
The first thing that stands out to me when thinking about differences in painting sitters versus myself is my mindset. When I’m painting a sitter, I am often in awe of the sitter in a really inspiring way, similar to how others might look up at an icon. There’s this feeling of honouring and a curiosity for their lives. When I’m painting self portraits, it’s a lot more self-deprecating, a sense of dread or having to face all my own insecurities. It’s strange because having painted a lot of the portraits recently via Zoom there is a mirroring effect involved, yet self portraits also involve this self-mirroring. Looking into a mirror, I have seen myself smiling (when painting others) and also crying (when painting myself), so it’s really psychologically interesting to toggle between the two. 
I try to be as honest as I can when making each painting; sometimes I feel like I’m a journalist. I just want to tell the truth, whether it’s the sitter’s truth or my own. I do wonder though what that is and how it may be skewed, since I often find myself wearing idealistic rosey-colored glasses when looking at the world.
You’ve talked about how in school you had to assimilate with the palette—what has been your process for developing your palette for painting Asian bodies since then?
Color theory wise, the answer is actually to add more green lol! But when I was in art school, I remember having a serious crisis figuring out how I was supposed to paint Asian bodies using the Zorn Palette (something we are all introduced to in 101 figure painting class) or the Cheatham’s Mud Palette – which my friend and painter Mark Yang kindly introduced to me. I remember Mark and I having a conversation about this, and the sort of psychological struggles we were both individually trying to overcome when it came to what it means to paint Asian bodies and color.

I also remember whenever I was at the Blick Art Store in the oil painting aisle, I would see the paint tube “Caucasian Flesh Tone” by Gamblin and it just never quite sat well with me. Maybe it was woke of me, but I wrote a letter to the company Gamblin telling them it’s 2019 and how the Caucasian Flesh Tone tube needs to be renamed “Peach” or some kind of color equivalent. I noticed after Black Lives Matter that the Caucasian Flesh Tone tube no longer exists on store shelves, but is now labeled Naples Orange. I have to say I was pretty delighted that day at the Blick Store when I saw this change!
I’m lucky to have also studied under Susanna Coffey, who always reminds me that flesh tones are never really actually peach-like flesh tones, but are of different colors under different light.
What has been inspiring you lately?
During COVID we have all been in so much isolation, yet I feel like I’ve really noticed how communities have come together during these insanely lonely and difficult times to uplight one another, and empower each other to survive. Beyond the Je Ne Suis Pas Un Virus campaign, I’m thinking about movements like Clap for Our Carers, Black Lives Matter, Stop Asian Hate, how restaurants are donating meals to those who can’t afford food during this time, or volunteer patrol groups that have formed in various cities to escort Asian Elderlies, or to protect Chinatowns. Even at this new artist residency that I am at, which focuses on artists who work in social justice and activism, it’s been pretty inspiring to see how different artists are working with the communities around them.  Especially with global warming and how it’ll be increasingly affecting us all, I see groups coming together as super crucial moving forward.

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