Her Work: Susan M B Chen

Waiting , 2018, oil on linen, 24 x 30 inches

Waiting, 2018, oil on linen, 24 x 30 inches

Susan M B Chen is a Hong Kong-American artist who paints interiors and landscapes that investigate the poetics of space. Dualities and the interior-exterior juxtaposition touch upon themes of dissonance, a search for belonging, and millennial anxieties framed by the digital world. Chen grew up between Hong Kong and the United Kingdom during the Hong Kong handover, prior to moving to the United States to attend Brown University, where she received her B.A. Honors in Visual Arts and International Relations (2015). Her work has been exhibited and collected by United Kingdom Parliament, Shanghai Hosane Auction House, Perry & Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, Brown University Investment Office, and is part of private collections in several international cities. She currently maintains her art practice in New York City and is pursuing her M.F.A. in Visual Arts, Painting at Columbia University School of the Arts.

Artist Q and A

Where do you live/work?

I’m currently an MFA painting student at Columbia University School of the Arts, so I paint in one of their studios in West Harlem on 125th street in NYC. Previously in the city, I also spent a year sharing studios at The Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts in Mid-town Manhattan.

What themes do you explore in your work?

I am currently in the midst of painting a series of Asian American portraits.  I’m a first-generation Asian American, and being alone here in the States while my family lives abroad, has made this project particularly meaningful to me as I attempt to readjust my perspectives looking from both the lens of an ethnic majority in one part of the world to that of a minority in another. 

In painting these portraits, I simultaneously find myself questioning the idea of visibility (or invisibility) in response to the lack of Asian/Asian American representation in Western portraiture and in our Western Art institutions.  I’ve had the fortunate learning opportunity to investigate the psychology of race and various perspectives of my portrait sitters on their ideas of identity, home, heritage, immigration, prejudice, family, longing, love and loss.

I hope that my efforts to share their portraits and stories can help a minority community feel a greater sense of inclusion, acceptance, and part of a greater social conversation -- particularly, in a society where Asian American faces are less frequently shown in everyday media.

What is your experience being a woman in this industry? Do you find it difficult, challenging, inspiring…?

This is a complicated question, and I’m sure varies from person to person.

Coming from Asia, I have been exposed to a society where to be able to hang a painting by a (white) male artist in your home is an ultimate status/symbol of wealth and prosperity.  Being fully aware of this, I entered this industry with pre-conceived notions that art made by male artists will always seem more valuable than female-made paintings.  
Furthermore, up till a certain time period, women were not allowed to take art classes, for example: in the 1800s, there was a cap on the number of women who could attend France’s Académie Royale of Painting and Sculpture, or that women were not allowed to take life drawing classes with men.  Yet, this didn’t mean there were no female artists; they have always existed, but were perhaps just not “seen” or recorded in art history.  In that sense, we are now living in a time where women can take art classes and exhibit, which makes painting in today’s age extremely hopeful and exciting.

 Being in conversation with my peers, I’ve also found that young female artists are often more likely to put themselves down, or apologize, when in conversation about their work, whereas male artists are able to talk about themselves and their work in a more confident, positive manner.  

My new year’s resolution for 2019 was, therefore, to be #boypainter: sometimes, you just have to think less and just do the work.  Make a lot of paintings and not care about what others think about you.  I feel like in that sense, I have been deeply inspired by my male counterparts to adapt to this gung-ho attitude and mindset when it comes to painting and your career.

Who are some women artists/art professionals that you admire?

Wander , 2018, oil on linen, 16 x 18 inches

Wander, 2018, oil on linen, 16 x 18 inches

I got to work as Shara Hughes’s artist assistant briefly before attending grad school, and that really changed my life.  Something that really stuck with me was her immense work ethic, which I think is needed in order to succeed in today’s art world.  She’s a real believer that regardless of your gender, if the work is good, that is the only thing that matters and that you also have to make a lot of it. 

I also really admire Hilary Doyle (founder of NYC Crit Club), or artists with a real community spirit.  For example, I find myself always naturally looking out for updates on Sharon Louden, Anita Durst (founder of Chashama), Leeza Meksin (founder of Ortega y Gassett), Heather Darcy Bhandari (author of ART/WORK).  These women are just naturally so generous when it comes to giving back to their art communities, whether it is trying to make art schools more affordable, exhibition opportunities more available to young artists, and going above and beyond in order to help level out the art world’s playing field.  They’re helping us push the needle, and we need generous artists like them in order to move forward.   

What does a typical day look like for you?

I love this question, because I just finished reading both of Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work books.

I usually get to the studio by 11 AM with coffee and brunch, read my emails, prep my palette, flip through some painting books, paint from 1:30 PM – 8:30 PM, eat dinner in the studio, clean my brushes, and try to get home by 10 PM.

Where do you find inspiration?

Nature: we take for granted the many incredible things that God/the universe has gifted us; no matter what humans create, nothing will ever beat the gifts of mother earth.  Huge fan of David Attenborough’s Our Planet series that first aired in April.

Travel: because it allows you to see things from someone else’s lens, navigate empathy, check your privilege and expand your perspectives.

Books and podcasts: because knowledge is power.  Some favourites from this year – Michelle Obama’s book BecomingThe Sheltering Sky by Peter Bowles, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: Women at Work, Oprah’s SuperSoul Podcasts and Brian Alfred’s Sound & Vision.  Also, still mind blown by Free Solo the Alex Honnold movie (which I recommend every artist watch, cause it's all about pushing your comfort zone, which I think is what we're doing in the studio every day).

Cassandra Fiorenza