I Am Not A Virus
September 18 – May 20 – October 23, 2021
Susan Chen, a Hong Kong-born painter, divides her time between New York City and Connecticut, but keeps her focus on the Asian diaspora. Her first solo show at Night Gallery, I Am Not A Virus, features 17 politically charged paintings that give voice to anti-Asian hate crimes, and are, in essence, a plea to be heard. All works, created in 2021, directly challenge Asian stereotypes by offering an honest glimpse into everyday lives. Individuals are set within the backdrop of various vocational positions, locations and family narratives, in order to instill a commonality across all cultures, regardless of race.
Although representative of social unrest during tumultuous times, Chen’s subjects are calm and personable, beckoning the viewer to peer beyond the snapshot and go deeper into the story. A wonderful dichotomy, these works imbue a sense of both conflict and serenity. In Barron Leung, a young man clutches a copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet while dreamily staring off into space. Presumably on a work break, he catches a bit of shade from nearby orchard trees. Fastened to the breast of his dirt-streaked overalls is a button that reads “I’m a Georgia voter.”
Chen’s sitters are usually strangers she finds on the internet, whose personal narratives are revealed through the course of a five-hour painting session. Considering COVID lockdown restrictions, the artist’s recent portrait sessions were conducted solely through live Zoom meetings. This is evident in the artist’s self-portrait, I Am Not the Kung Flu. Through the eyes of a computer screen, she is seen seated within her home environment, framed by a Zoom navigation bar.
Despite this supposedly cozy setting, the atmosphere is ominous: Her desk is strewn with over-the-counter weapons such as pepper spray and tear gas; the artist stoically inspects a taser gun while a vaccination needle penetrates her left arm. The painting conveys a grave concern for one’s personal survival as well as overall public safety during a time of crisis.
The show’s centerpiece, #StopAsianHate, boasts a staggering 78x 120” protest scene. Life-sized figures are fervently gathered in the street, their raised signs announcing, Silence is Violence, Hate is a Virus and We Belong Here, to name a few. Policemen and news reporters stand by, as a distant American flag flutters in an overcast sky.
Chen renders her compositions with a whimsical fluidity, sprinkled with details and vibrant colors that breathe life into her characters and settings. The expressionistic style, laden with extremely thick layers and bold brushstrokes, matches the unabashed urgency behind her message.
Cover image: #StopAsianHate; all images courtesy of the author