Susan Chen on painting in a pandemic
“Working from home, you can check in on your paintings at the strangest hours, like at 4:00 a.m on your way to the bathroom.”
Susan Chen (b. 1992)
I first ran across Susan Chen’s paintings on Instagram, where the Columbia MFA student has been sharing photos of a series of vibrant portraits that, as she writes in an artist’s statement, “respond to the lack of Asian/Asian American representation in portraiture within our Western art institutions (particularly in modern and contemporary art).” Though she’s still wrapping up her MFA, the Hong Kong–born artist has already landed her first solo exhibition, which opened on Saturday at New York’s Meredith Rosen Gallery and runs through September 19. Titled On Longing, it collects several of Chen’s portraits, as well as a number of paintings made in her living room since the beginning of the COVID19 crisis. Last week, over email, Chen kindly told me more about her creative process, how she uses social media to find sitters for her portraits, and how her dog reacted to her makeshift home painting studio.
Susan Chen, COVID-19 Survival Kit (2020)
Congratulations on your first solo exhibition! I read that several of these paintings were made from your living room during the pandemic—is that correct? What was it like trying to paint from home during such a strange time?
In March, I was abruptly kicked out of my Columbia MFA studio with just a few days’ notice. We were entering lockdown in NYC, and so I found myself rearranging all my living room furniture in order to create a makeshift art studio in my 9-by-12-foot space. I pulled out my easel and set up a drop cloth on the floor, which my dog thought was a giant wee wee pad. A couple of times she’s peed on the corners of the drop cloth, which made me cry a little but was also kind of hilarious.
I also had to adjust to this new live-work relationship. Working from home, you can check in on your paintings at the strangest hours, like at 4:00 a.m on your way to the bathroom, if you want. Unlike having a separate studio, where you can take a bit of a breather from the work when you leave, having your works-in-progress at home means the paintings are constantly in your face, criticizing you 24/7. Because I could no longer work with sitters during lockdown, I had started making these self-portraits, and at one point I had five Mini-Mes hanging out next to me on the sofa, and I thought, Whoa, this is really intense!
Above and below: Chen’s makeshift home studio
I also read that you typically work with non-professional models, and that you keep up a conversation with them during the five-hour studio sittings, so that it’s almost like a therapy session. Can you tell us a little more about your process and how you create the right atmosphere for making your portraits?
I find most of my sitters on social media. Because I’m working to highlight Asian-American representation in painting, I’ve used Facebook groups like Subtle Asian Traits, Subtle Asian Life NYC, Chinatowns of New York, and all the Andrew Yang Facebook groups. What usually happens is that I linger on these channels for a month or so, just to get a temperature check on the conversations happening locally on the ground between different Asian-American communities.
When I think the timing is appropriate, I’ll make a post saying that I’m looking for sitters. I remember one of the first times I did this, I thought I would only receive three or four emails and was really surprised when I found almost a hundred replies in my inbox. Many of these sitters wanted to participate because they too felt this yearning to contribute to empowering Asian Americans.
Most of these sitters are strangers, so I don’t usually meet them until the day they come up to my studio to be painted. I feel pretty lucky that everyone I’ve worked with so far has been totally normal, considering there is an element of “stranger danger” to my practice. Most sitters have also never been to an art studio before, so it’s a totally new experience for them. I always begin with some drawings before getting into the painting, just to help the sitter feel more at ease. I also prep my basic palette an hour ahead of time and, once they arrive, adjust the colors for their skin tones or personality.
I think the rising Gemini in me makes me naturally curious about people’s lives. A lot of times I’ll tell sitters to bring a book or that they can watch a film on my laptop. But because five hours is a long time, we usually end up chatting about what’s happening in the sitters’ lives: conversations about family, home, immigration, prejudice, identity, their dating lives, gossip, etc.
It’s a really intimate experience. Many times, on random days, even months later, I’ll wake up or be in the middle of my commute and I’ll suddenly wonder what my sitters are up to these days.
Susan Chen, Yang Gang (2020)
What does your typical day look like right now? Is this a big departure from your pre-COVID routine?
Lockdown definitely tossed my former 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. routine right out the window. But now that I’ve sort of adjusted to this live-work life, I can say that I am finding a bit more of a schedule.
I now wake up at 11:00 a.m., eat brunch, drink my must-have single-shot latte, and reply to emails. I always get a kick from the coffee, which helps me get into the painting. I mix my palettes, and then try to paint till dinner. I have dinner, and after that I just keep working, whether it’s continuing to paint, cleaning up, or doing other administrative tasks. I may have developed this bad habit where I now work till midnight a lot of days; I often feel like I’m in this permanent one-person startup as an artist and it never ends. Then at midnight I’ll take a bath or shower and start winding down. By the time I fall asleep, it’s like 3:00 a.m.
I do miss the days where I would get up and have my morning-shower routine and look somewhat decent before heading out the door for work. These days, I wake up, roll into the living room in my pajamas with greasy hair, and I can just start painting. I’m not even sure I know what it’s like to wear a bra anymore. I now paint while having the TV on in the background (I’ve learned that having CNN on for too long can make you more anxious than you need to be), but also being next to your kitchen means you can snack all the time, which has been really distracting. Cheese puffs, for example, are something that I’ve only really discovered this pandemic season…
Do you normally have any rituals or superstitions that are part of your creative process? Have you been able to continue those—or have you had to figure out new habits with everything going on?
I must have my single-shot latte every morning. It can’t be two shots, it has to be one, and it has to be with a half-pack of sugar. Also, religiously every morning, I put on a necklace that my mom gave me when I turned 21. Actually, the morning of installing this show, I had misplaced my necklace, I couldn’t find it anywhere, and I was freaking out. I thought, Oh no, my show is going to be a disaster now because the one install day—the most important day of my life—I have managed to misplace my lucky necklace.
Oh! I do also have a lucky paintbrush. Lucky paintbrush must be in sight at all times, haha. (It is a size 0 round brush with a blue handle.)
Susan Chen, Arnie’s at the Cape (2020)
What have you been doing to relax and recharge these days?
Since the pandemic, I now have the time and luxury to take baths! With lavender Epson salt and Kiehl’s face masks, every week (so much fun!). The salts, I’ve also discovered, are really good for your muscles, especially if you’re doing physical painting labor most days, and it helps you fall asleep really fast afterward too.
I don’t know if this counts, but I get a lot of instant gratification from Swiffering my floor, which I also do every night, for fun. It’s meditative.
Finally, have you read, watched, or listened to anything amazing lately that you can recommend?
I’m enjoying Michelle Obama’s new podcast. The last book I happened to read was Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. Currently, I’m reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong; it’s so beautifully written, but also makes me cry every couple of pages.
A book that totally changed my life this year was Neale Donald Walsch’s The Complete Conversations with God: An Uncommon Dialogue. His ideas are quite out-there, and it’s this 700-page book about his thoughts on the human relationship to God. It definitely preaches spirituality, but I really enjoy reading about ideas that are against the norm, outside the bubble, and push people’s buttons a little.
Susan Chen: On Longing is on view at New York’s Meredith Rosen Gallery through September 19.
On a recent episode of Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow’s Call Your Girlfriend podcast, Sow talked to Zadie Smith about her new collection of essays, Intimations, written in the early days of the pandemic. The entire interview is wonderful, but I was especially struck by Smith’s admission that this is the first time she’s thought of writing as more than a hobby (!):
I can’t believe I’m saying this, because I always thought it wasn’t true for me, but it was cathartic for me to write. It wasn’t only cathartic, it was—I couldn’t not write. And that’s the kind of melodramatic thing which, whenever I hear a writer say it, it makes me want to jump out a window. But for the first time in my life, I did realize what writing means to me, that it’s not a hobby. I guess I thought it was [a hobby] to this point, or something inessential, or just rhetoric. To me, it’s really soul business—like, I need it. I’m not very good without it. And that was really news to me. It’s late news, but I found it cathartic. I’ve always found reading cathartic, I never had any doubt about that, but for the first time I realized how writing helps me deal with reality.
WRIGGLING THROUGH 🐛
My occasional advice column is turning into a monthly advice column! Going forward, I’ll be tackling your creative dilemmas in the last newsletter of each month. For now, feel free to peruse my past advice—or send me your creative dilemma by emailing it to email@example.com (or just reply to this email).