The Artsy Vanguard 2022: Susan Chen

Mimi Wong
Nov 15, 2022 5:02PM

The sensation of looking at Susan Chen’s brightly colored portraits is not unlike gazing into the faces of people familiar to you. They stare back, often with calm, neutral expressions. Many paintings highlight commonplace activities, such as a family enjoying a meal together at the beach, elders gathering on a street corner, or a group of high school students crafting zines. Her work has received praise for representing marginalized communities and individuals, particularly those belonging to the Asian diaspora, who don’t often see themselves reflected in fine art.

Ironically, when Chen began pursuing an MFA at Columbia University, she declared, “I hate humans. I don’t want to paint humans.” She initially focused on landscapes after a David Hockney exhibition motivated her to take up oil painting her junior year of college. She believed she was just having fun until others began questioning how she saw herself in the lineage of white male painters like Pierre Bonnard and Caspar David Friedrich. “Actually, I don’t,” she responded.

Susan Chen, Chinatown Block Watch, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.


Born in Hong Kong and educated in the U.K., and later the U.S., Chen bristled at the notion that she was expected to make work explicitly about her identity. “I could be painting something as mundane as an apple,” Chen said, “and the way the outside world perceives it is always: ‘How does this relate to you being an Asian woman? Why does this matter from the lens of an Asian woman?’” She decided to confront her frustration head on. Recalling her mindset at the time, she said, “I’m just going to paint Asian people. I’m going to get to the point and see what happens. And I did. It’s kind of funny because I guess things are working out really well.”

Chen sold out her very first solo exhibition, which was presented by New York’s Meredith Rosen Gallery during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, while still fresh out of graduate school. The timeliness of Chen’s work was even more apparent in her following show “I Am Not a Virus” , which also sold out, at L.A.’s Night Gallery in 2021. Later that year, Silver Art Projects announced Chen as one of its annual social justice and activism artists in residence, on the heels of Forbes naming her a “30 Under 30” honoree. This year, Chen made her museum debut in the group exhibition “52 Artists: A Feminist Milestone” at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Connecticut. It’s an impressive list of accomplishments for an artist of any age.

Susan Chen, An Afternoon Making Quaranzines with Apex for Youth, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.

When we met this past September, Chen had recently moved to New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, where her sun-filled studio overlooked an avenue crowded with traffic and honking cars. It also happened to be her apartment for the time being. Though she felt fortunate to have landed such a convenient living situation, she did lament the lack of work-life balance. In the same breath, she admitted that she’s not very good at keeping the two worlds separate. “Painting and life are just combined into one,” she reflected. “A lot of times, you’re just painting about your life.”

Chen’s work frequently reveals quotidian details drawn from everyday moments. Portraits from her 2021 “Zoom Collaboration Series” strive to present ordinary Asian Americans—strangers located across the country whom she connected with online—as they are: a frontline worker at a nurse station; a girl scout in front of her family’s Chinese restaurant; an “Indiana Boy” standing in a field.

Portrait of Susan Chen in front of her painting #StopAsianHate, 2021. Courtesy of the artist.


#StopAsianHate (2021), depicting protestors carrying signs that read “We belong here” and “Love our people like U love our food,” directly addresses anti-Asian racism. Another painting, I Am Not the Kung Flu (2021), shows Chen wearing an N95 mask with a taser in hand as she receives a vaccination shot in her other arm. The self-portrait succinctly captures the stark reality of simultaneously living in the time of COVID-19 and increased violence against Asians.

The painting was featured on the cover of New York magazine’s late September 2022 issue “At Home in Asian America,” which centered Asian American stories. Its use stirred up passionate reactions, both positive and negative. Chen said she didn’t anticipate receiving angry messages in response to the artwork. She was especially surprised that a lot of the criticism came from other Asians and Asian Americans, who accused her of reinforcing racist stereotypes by depicting Asians as paranoid and brandishing weapons. Initially, some detractors seemed not to realize that the artist was Asian American, likening the image to “Yellow Peril” anti-Chinese propaganda. “I feel like the art was doing its job,” Chen said, “that is, to spark conversations around uncomfortable issues and ask people to think.”

Susan Chen
I Am Not the Kung Flu, 2021
Night Gallery
Susan Chen
Grandpa Shijun & Ashley, 2021
Night Gallery

Spending so much time observing others and the world around her has allowed Chen to explore her own capacity for empathy. “A lot of times you think it’s just you that’s being affected,” she explained. “Then you realize it’s a societal thing that other people are going through, too.” It is perhaps this intuitive ability to tap into shared experiences that makes her work so relevant and relatable.

Despite her success, she remains somewhat stunned to have found a career as an artist, especially when she considers her family’s roots. Her parents were factory workers, and Chen remembers growing up spending a lot of time on factory grounds with her younger sister, playing with nuts and bolts. “I’m sometimes in disbelief of how I got here from there,” Chen marveled. Her family, including her father, who does not live in the U.S., has yet to attend any of her shows. “I’m excited for the day that I exhibit in Hong Kong because then they can see,” Chen said.

Susan Chen
Just DO I, 2022
Night Gallery

Susan Chen, Just DO IV, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.

Her dream is to paint a series featuring her sister. Propped up against the wall on the floor of her studio, a rough sketch on cardboard imagines Chen and her sister arranging flowers. Next to the work in progress sits a completed still life of flowers, wrapped and ready, at the time of my visit, to be shipped to Frieze London, where it was exhibited by Night Gallery this past October.

Inspired by the still lifes and flower paintings of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin and Lê Phổ, respectively, the colorful bouquet consists of wavy, textured petals Chen achieved by cake-piping oil paint onto the canvas. In the painting, resting next to the vase is a card with the word “DO”—referencing a letter Sol LeWitt sent to Eva Hesse, in which he advised the sculptor to stop overthinking and “just DO” in order to overcome her creative block.

Chen’s own approach has been to take it show by show, year by year. Summing up her philosophical outlook, she stated, “In my mind, I feel like whenever you make something with intention, good things will come from that.”

Susan Chen, Silver Art Projects, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.

One last painting, which was being stored temporarily in an empty room next to her studio, features faces of all different ethnicities belonging to fellow artists from her Silver Art Projects cohort, as well as the program’s founders. Centered at the bottom of the composition, a banner proclaims: “If you build it, they will come,” while in the upper right corner stands the Freedom Tower—a nod to the residency’s location at the World Trade Center.

For Chen, painting people with very different lives offers a way to step outside of one’s bubble. With a refreshing measure of curiosity and optimism, she articulated her perspective as an immigrant and artist. “One of my favorite things about living in America, compared to living in Asia, or even in the U.K., is how much race gets discussed here, alongside the discussions about how people come together and those issues,” she said. “The world is the most racially diverse and multicultural it’s ever been, and this is a really special time and place in history to be alive.”

The Artsy Vanguard 2022

The Artsy Vanguard is our annual feature recognizing the most promising artists working today. The fifth edition of The Artsy Vanguard features 19 rising talents from across the globe who are poised to become the next great leaders of contemporary art. Explore more of The Artsy Vanguard 2022 and collect works by the artists.

Mimi Wong

Header image, from left to right: Susan Chen, “Chinese Take Out,” 2021; “Just DO IV,” 2022; and “Silver Art Projects,” 2022. Courtesy of the artist.