While others were baking bread and watching the news during the pandemic lockdown, New York City artist Susan Chen got busy with her paint brushes. Her swirls of bright colors created richly contextualized scenes and portraits that highlight the similarities and struggles faced by Asian-American communities.
Now, her work will be featured in two exhibits. The “Wonder Women” curated exhibit at Jeffrey Deitch Gallery in Los Angeles will be followed by her work featured in “52 Artists: A Feminist Milestone” at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut.
The painting Kathy Behind the Scenes is Susan Chen’s imaginative interpretation of curator and gallerist Kathy Huang selling paintings from the Wonder Women exhibitions at Jeffrey Deitch Gallery.
Named in Forbes 30 Under 30 in North America for 2022, Susan is a surprisingly soft-spoken creative who thinks intelligently on themes of colonialism, the legacy patriarchy of the art world, and how her talents can translate into positive change for Asian-Americans and others.
“As a painter, I just paint reflections of the world,” she said. “It’s an exciting time to be alive. It’s a time for change.”
Last year, Susan was named a Social Justice & Activism Artist-in-Residence at Silver Art Projects, while also being featured as one of the 16 rising artists of the Asian diaspora by Artsy Editorial. In the Fall of 2020, she won The Hopper Prize and was named a noteworthy artist by New American Paintings’ juried exhibitions-in-print.
But those “CV lines,” as she says, aren’t what she focuses on.
“It can feel like a high-pressure job because with every painting made, the expectations are that it will last forever,” she said. “Painting and life are intertwined into one for me, so sometimes I’m amazed that I’m taking it week by week.”
Early Roots Create Lessons in Colonialism
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Susan was 5 years old during the 1997 British colonialism handover to China. She watched the transition with interest in her childhood and teen years, all while her traditional family encouraged her to learn English in order to get a good job.
She found herself in the United States attending college but was attracted to painting and drawing.
“I’ve always loved the arts, but I didn’t go to an art-intensive high school or art undergrad,” she said. “At the end of the day, you just end up doing what you want to do, whether you’re 60 or 30. I feel lucky to be here.”
By the time the pandemic lockdown was announced, she was already an up-and-coming artist through Columbia University’s MFA program. Perhaps then it isn’t surprising that she decided to use that time to dive deep into a project on Asian-American portraiture and what Pan-Asian unity could look like.
“It happened organically,” she said. “Most people I reached out to were really excited to participate, and I think it’s partially due to the pandemic. It gave people something to do.”
In the end, she created 17 portraits of Asian-Americans she contacted through Facebook groups. The strangers sat for three hours each over Zoom, and Susan used the time not only to make art, but to find connections among different Asian ethnicities.
“They shared stories that I weaved into these paintings,” she said. “The way people react to us shapes the way we think and interact with the world, but humans are, at the end of the day, universally kind of the same. We all want the same things: security and love.”
To Keep Creative, She Keeps Working
When she joined Silver Art Projects, she was able to do her work in an airy studio surrounded by other inspirational artists. Since the theme of the residency was social justice, all the artists focused on concepts centered around much-needed change.
“You learn how other people work, too. That was perhaps the most intriguing part of it,” Susan said.
The studio windows overlooked the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, and she found the view created a powerful perspective for her. She said she felt humbled and empowered.
Much of Susan’s recent work has focused on the stigmas and harassment Asian-Americans have faced during the Coronavirus pandemic. Her 2021 oil painting, “I Am Not The Kung Flu” shows a freshly vaccinated Asian girl surrounded by pepper spray, a taser, and other self-defense tools. It is a personal confession about the dangers of being a member of the Asian community at a time of so much misinformation and fear.
“The reality is, this harassment is still happening,” she said, relaying stories of some of her closest loved ones being attacked simply for being Asian.
Susan’s Work Highlights Everyday Asian Life
Another recent project, entitled “Chinatown Block Watch,” shows people living their lives on the famous city streets. Susan said she especially appreciated working with residents from older generations who volunteered to sit for her portraits.
Susan Chen, Chinatown Block Watch, 2022
Painting people, she explained, is an intimate act that’s also just a moment in time.
“I spent this year working with Chinatown nonprofit groups to bring their stories and paintings to life. You think they would be hyped to be in a painting, but in reality, it might be more exciting for me as the painter than it is for them,” she said. “After the painting is made, they’re back to their own lives.”
She worked with another nonprofit, Apex for Youth, painting some of the teens who receive mentors to help them in association with their parents who aren’t native English speakers.
“I thought it was so great that these kids have an opportunity to talk about their issues,” she said. “With my generation, at least, mental health is not talked about in Asian families.”
As part of her volunteer efforts, she encouraged the high school students to consider careers in the arts. The work demands constant productivity with the goal of mastering challenging technical skills. It’s part of why she herself is so prolific with her work.
Susan Chen, An Afternoon Making Quaranzines with Apex for Youth, 2022
“There are no cutting corners,” she advised. “It doesn’t matter about marketing and galleries. The work, the paintings, is what matters most. The only way the paintings get better is if you make more paintings.”
To help up-and-coming artists, she recommends people share their work online to enhance exposure and to help build the artist’s confidence. Buying their work, of course, is also a great way to support an artist financially.
“There is literally any other career that would be easier. Artists aren’t in this for finances,” she said. “I’m just continuing to put myself into shows and taking it year by year. I want to do this until I’m dead.”