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I was intrigued and delighted by the names and books that Susan Chen cites in some of her portraits. In “Streetcars of Desire” (oil on canvas, 40 by 30 inches, 2020), the artist depicts herself sitting on an ambiguous pink form (a rug or a tiny island) reading a recently published paperback. The title, How To Be An Artist, is clearly visible on the back cover, but Chen has deliberately omitted the author’s name (Jerry Saltz).
By placing the title on the back cover, Chen alludes to her Chinese heritage of reading from right to left; the title also in essence takes over the book, becoming its author. These are among the many curious, purposeful details that we discover in Chen’s debut exhibition, Susan Chen: On Longing, at Meredith Rosen Gallery (August 15–September 19, 2020)
Beside her, three books lean against a glass vase of sunflowers — an allusion to Vincent van Gogh. The name on the spine of the leftmost volume is Neale Donald Walsch, the author of a bestselling book series called Conversations with God. The title on the cover is An Uncommon Dialogue, the subtitle of the first publication in the series, which appeared in 1995. By citing only the part of the title, Chen invites us to read it as an indication of the artist’s longing.
The next book is Portraits by John Berger, though we see only his surname, and the third, Creative Interpretation — again with the title on the back cover — suggests, as she has with Saltz’s book, that the author is unimportant, and that perhaps the painting is open to the same creative interpretation that the title calls for.
Behind the artist, a large, rounded rectangle, cropped at the top and left, could be a window or a painting that presents a slightly, skewed, hilly landscape with a row of cheerfully colored, widely spaced box cars rolling down railroad tracks. A sign rises above the track, bearing the word “Glory” and pointing to the left. Is it meant to indicate the artist’s soon-to-be-recent-past? (She is currently an MFA student at Columbia University who expects to graduate in 2021). Each of the six boxcars bears the name of one of her teacher’s names, including Hull (Richard), Amenoff (Gregory), Coffey (Susanna) and Nisenbaum (Aliza).
In the foreground, another set of railroad tracks runs along the painting’s bottom edge, with six boxcars emblazoned with the names of contemporary and historical artists, including Hockney, Matisse, Bonnard, Burchfield, Soutine, and Le Pho (1907-2001), a modernist Vietnamese painter who is still under the radar in the United States, despite exhibiting in San Francisco and New York. Le Pho is best known for his paintings of nudes and flowers in which he merged aspects of Asian and European art.
Chen’s inclusion of Le Pho’s name and its placement on the first boxcar challenges the canonical thinking that sees only white male artists as constituting the history of avant-garde or innovative art. In this and other paintings, it is clear that Chen knows what she is up against and is consciously pushing back. Rather than trying to fit in, she is deliberately making a place for herself and for other individuals of Asian descent.
In the group portrait, “About Face” (oil on canvas, 74 x 54 inches, 2020), Chen depicts four casually dressed young Asian women in the foreground. Behind them, a Greek Revival building based on Columbia’s Butler Library, complete with columns and the names of Greek philosophers and writers chiseled into the frieze — Homer, Herodotus, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes — fills the painting’s upper right-hand corner. Above this unsurprising, all-male list, and separated by a row of small windows, Chen has added another list of names chiseled into the facade — Angelou, Anzaldua, Chang, Hurston, Morrison, Revathi, Shange — writers, cultural theorists, and a film director, all of them women of color who should be required reading in a class on Western Civilization in its late stage, meaning the present.
The woman on the painting’s far left, who bears a strong resemblance to Chen’s self-portrait, holds a book, Racial Melancholia by Eng and Han. Again, Chen’s omission is telling, as the book’s exact title is Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation. The melancholy seems reflected on the women’s faces. They seem intent, through their study of women writers, filmmakers, and cultural critics, on challenging the hierarchy and undoing the canon.
There are two other self-portraits I want to mention, “COVID-19 Survival Kit” (oil on canvas, 40 by 30 inches, 2020) and “Nude Self Portrait” (oil on canvas, 40 by 30 inches, 2020). In “COVID-19 Survival Kit,” the artist depicts herself in a gray T-shirt sitting on a brown throw rug in the middle of an undecorated room. She is holding a small, fluffy white dog on her lap, surrounded by emergency supplies: cans of beans, cough drops, cleansers, aspirin, and other goods. All three cans of beans appear to be dented, and the triangular stack they form seems precarious.
Behind her, near a closed door, a loose roll of toilet paper unravels on the floor. To the right, against a wall the color of dried blood, Dr. Anthony Fauci appears on a large-screen TV beside the statistics of reported Covid-19 cases in the United States, and the number of related deaths. Chen’s expression is one of quiet alarm. This is our shared daily experience of living in a pandemic, whether we acknowledge it or not.
In “Nude Self Portrait,” the artist, nude except for the polka-dot sock on her left foot and the blue neoprene glove on her painting hand, sits in a green office chair, headphones wrapped around her ears, a paint brush in one hand and an open sketchbook in the other. The drawing in the sketchbook mirrors the pose in the painting, sans headphones. Beside her, on the right, her painting table is arrayed with gobs of colors piled up in rows according to hue. On the left, a canvas sits on an easel, angled away from us. Behind her shoulder, in the upper right quadrant, a glass vase filled with paintbrushes sits beside a book atop a cabinet or heating unit, while, through the window above, a roiling dark gray and violet sky threatens a distant skyline. It seems as if Chen is painting her nude self-portrait just as a storm is about to begin. Perhaps the headphones will help her shut out the noise of the world.
Chen’s attention to detail imbues her work with panache. I found myself looking closely at the paintings in case I missed anything. At the same time, they did not feel fussy or contrived. The details are sharp, funny, and telling, such as her listing of Matisse, Soutine, and Le Pho, a transparent display of her inspirations and the artists with whom she is having a dialogue.
I see Chen’s paintings as a sophisticated amalgamation of styles, from Matisse’s floral patterning, to Soutine’s unstable landscapes, to the thick brushstrokes of Van Gogh. But, almost paradoxically, I failed to detect any irony in this way of working, nor did I feel that the imagery had been stitched together from her sources.
Rather, there is an earnestness to these works that I find both bold and refreshing. She is not afraid to wear her heart on her sleeve, or to make paintings that are awash with feeling.
Susan Chen: On Longing continues at Meredith Rosen Gallery (11 East 80th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through September 19.