Conversations with Artists in Art Getting Art: Susan MB Chen '20

Audrey Deng
October 30, 2020

Conversations with Artists in Art Getting Art is a bi-weekly series and a play on Jerry Seinfeld's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. We interview artists about their art and 'getting art'.

This week we sat down with Susan MB Chen '20 to talk about the Facebook group “Subtle Asian Traits,” the relationships between artists and sitters, and how Chen’s work evolved from landscape painting to portraiture.

Susan MB Chen paints Asian Americans. Most are sitting in chairs; some stand; some hold objects. Many, if not most, are strangers from the internet who Chen finds through Facebook and Craigslist, in forums and groups related to/created for and by Asian Americans. For example, there is "Subtle Asian Traits," the popular Facebook group full of memes. Chen grew up in a newly independent Hong Kong free of British rule, but she spent most of the year in an all-girl’s school in England before immigrating to the United States to get her bachelor’s degree at the Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. There, she began painting after encountering David Hockney’s rich landscapes—"[she] had to paint," she said. In Providence, she painted landscapes, but once Chen arrived at Columbia, she tried her hand at drawing people. "It was a matter of running towards something," Chen said, of returning home. First, she put figures in landscapes. Then, she drew figures sitting. She drew figures sitting in front of windows through which one could see a glimpse of sprawling, colorful landscape relating to the figure’s life. Right now, figures are the central focus of Chen’s work, and these figures are painted with a rhythm and enthusiasm and playfulness that breathes new life into portraiture. Her new work has been received with much acclaim. The art critic Jerry Saltz has said, of her work, that “Asian faces in portraiture is incredibly rare. Susan MB Chen is looking to change that.”

This is a beautiful studio. I see you have a window.

Susan Chen:
 Yeah, though at first I had a really difficult time adjusting. Because sometimes the light would change, and the colors would look different, and if it’s cloudy, the colors look different too. But I figured it out.

Where do the people in your portraits come from? Are all these folks real?

 This one in front of us, this is the first time I’m actually using a photo for painting because I’m working on a large canvas for the first time, so I really wanted to get the size right. Working on a smaller canvas is easier to get the person, but a larger canvas is more of a challenge. I started by painting me and my sister, and during the summer, I would just find my sitters on the internet through Facebook groups. I was really inspired by “Subtle Asian Traits.”

I love that group!

 It was really interesting how there aren’t too many government support programs for Asians, especially Asian Americans. We learned this in class. The model minority myth. A lot of funding will go to African Americans, Latinos. When it comes to Asian Americans people think, ‘Oh, they do well.’ It’s really interesting to me that “Subtle Asian Traits” is a place for people who don’t really quite know where to go, and found this online platform to belong somewhere. It’s got like 1.5 million people. That cannot be treated lightly. It’s also interesting to me how every two posts, someone posts about bubble tea. You’re like, really? Bubble tea is what bonds us? So many people don’t actually like bubble tea, but it’s sort of become a symbol. I want to do a bubble tea painting eventually.

But as I’m looking for these Asians through these social media groups, like “Subtle Asian Dating in New York,” or “East Asian American Conversations,” or “Asian Women Empowerment,” I also posted on Craigslist. I contacted a bunch of Asian American organizations in the city. A lot of people emailed me saying ‘Oh, I want to sit for your painting,’ and it was kind of overwhelming. I think I got two hundred emails. I couldn’t paint everyone. So the people I ended up picking were those who would write me these really long stories or emails about why they thought what I was doing was important. I would pick them because they already believed in the mission.

What kinds of things would people say to you to pique your interest?

 There was this one mom whose son, who was about four years old, would come home from school and ask her, “Mom, am I black or white?” And she would go like, “You’re not black or white, you’re Asian.” And she would explain to him the family history. And three or four months later this kid would come home and ask the same question. This mom was like, “Wow, we live in a society which can feel so binary sometimes.” If you go to an educated school, people will understand Asians exist, but the majority of this county doesn’t go to the 1% of well-educated school. So for this kid, being Asian wasn’t talked about in his school. He didn’t know who he was, and his mother was very concerned and upset.

So she thought taking her son to you would help him understand what it was to be Asian? I can’t imagine the experience, sitting for that long, to be painted. How long do sitters sit for?

 I usually paint people in five or six hours, from 1 to 6pm. It’s interesting because people can’t really help themselves, so they just start talking. You know. And I start to feel like I’m a therapist. Whereas before I got here, into the MFA program, I was painting landscapes. With a landscape you don’t have to worry about the tree’s feelings, or how the tree will be a couple years later, you know what I mean? Whereas with people, they’re human, they’re real, they’re fragile, they’re vulnerable. You have to make sure they’re ok.

Bathroom breaks. Trees don’t need bathroom breaks.

Totally. That’s the big difference. Landscapes were very isolating to work with, in a good way, but humans were a new kind of challenge. But it’s cool to paint and listen at the same time.

Is it, though? Is it? Sometimes listening to people for too long—I find that Asian women, well I, as an Asian woman—I’m not sure why, but it can be sort of stressful to listen to people talk, I feel, because of the expectation I’ve projected, sort of, that Asian women listen.

 It is stressful in the sense that—so I had ten sitters over the summer, and after your sixth sitter has brought up a story about how all they wanted was to be white, and they would completely disassociate with being Asian, or like, having an affinity to it. But then after the sitting they would realize that Asian identity is really an important part of them. And then they go to join Asian American organizations. When the sixth person tells you a story like this, you think, “Oh, something is happening here.” Fire alarms go off. A lot of people feel this but they don’t talk about it. When I started these portraits it was because I was walking around museums and thinking, “There are no Asian people in our contemporary modern works.” From an ethnic population standpoint, they’re like 7% of the U.S. population, but they’re not recorded in [U.S.] history. I don’t know. I don’t have answers yet.

So racial anxiety comes up a lot during these sitting sessions?

 I mean not all the time, but at some point it will come up. Because it’s six hours.

That’s a long time to spend with someone who is essentially a stranger.

Some emails I got from interested people were short, like “Here’s my number.” Other people would tell me long stories about themselves, and I was like, “Cool, you’re telling me all this about yourself, and I’m a stranger to you.”

There are some things you can only share with strangers.

 It’s usually about why the visibility of Asian Americans is important to them. It usually comes from a personal place. Like that mom and her son. Like growing up in a very white neighborhood. People ask me, “Why don’t you just paint your friends?” The thing about painting friends is you’re usually from the same social bubble. And with the internet, people come from all social classes. You get a range. What I like about painting strangers is that I don’t know what they look like, usually because people have very good privacy settings. So they just sort of arrive, and I’m like, “Oh, that’s what you look like!” There’s an element of surprise. My understanding of them comes from painting. I have no preconceived notion of the person.

What do you feel is the relationship between painter and model?

Matisse painted portraits. His take was: I pay all my models because that means I control all my models, and I own them. There’s that kind of relationship with models. I think this might be better for the painting because you have full control. The model doesn’t talk. Matisse would pay his models to come in, seven days a week, for long hours, and they were mostly naked women, so it became mostly about the gaze. Whereas here, it’s not about owning the person. It’s about honoring the person, maybe? But that can sometimes take away from the painting because you’re so obsessed with making sure that the person is honored.

Could you explain that a bit more—to honor a person you paint?

 I’ll do these drawing exercises as an entryway to the painting. They don’t really look like the person. But the minute the actual person comes into the studio, you have to paint the person like the person. It can’t just not look like the person.

Which aspects of the person do you keep? At what point does it not resemble the human before you? Like, where would you draw the line and say: this no longer looks like the person?

WIth Matisse, you don’t actually know what his women look like. But his work is not about the women at all. It’s about color and composition and beauty. Here, it’s about the person.

Yeah, like faces and stuff. The color of your socks. Nostrils.

Matisse’s way of painting the model was about owning the model, and my version of painting the model is a little more distracted from the painting itself because I have this responsibility now to the person, which Matisse would not have had to deal with.

So prior to portraits, you were doing landscapes. When did this happen?

I started painting my junior year of college, and I had kind of traditional Asian parents who were like, “You’re not allowed to do art!” But I saw this David Hockney exhibition, and his landscapes were Yorkshire, England. It really blew me away. I had to take a painting class. My entry to painting was through landscapes, so I did that for a while. For me, landscapes are always about running away, escaping somewhere, and portraits are the total opposite because it’s right in front of you. You can’t escape the person. I think of landscapes as running away and portraits as running towards. One day I got tired of running away, I guess, and I decided: I want to go home now, go the other direction.

One of your first portraits, you mentioned, was of you and your sister?

It’s actually that one over there. I was trying to bring figures into the landscape. You can see those are cartoon-looking characters. That’s very cartoony, because I was still learning how to paint people. It kind of evolved from there.

What is portraiture, to you?

Someone gave me a good answer. It was like, three ways of portraiture. One is honoring them. Two is putting them on a pedestal, like Jesus, monuments, heroes. And the third one is through some sort of a gaze, like a male’s gaze.

So like John Singer Sargent. He painted a lot of his friends, I think, which would probably be some sort of gaze, like the gaze of friendship.

 I feel like a lot of Western portraiture was mostly of people who own a lot of land, were socially significant, so they deserve to be recorded in history. Even Jan van Eyck, he was the guy who allegedly invented oil painting. All his portraits were wealthy donors, patrons of the church, or religious figures. Between looking at Asian art history and Western art history, and how people are depicted, you have a lot of icons in Western art. Everyone had a photo of Jesus in their house at some point. In Asian art, the figures are very small, and they’re part of a landscape. In Buddhism, in temples, the gods are surrounded by other gods, other creatures—they’re never really on their own.

Looking around your studio, I see just two men.

Yeah. I think men are harder to find because they’re less interested in sitting for portraits. I’m in my Asian American class right now, and we’re mostly women. I don’t know if men want to talk about—but based on my experience of sitting in class, and the emails I get—mostly women. Instead of forcing myself to find men, my question is, one: are women just assimilating better into American society than men? Or two: maybe men are just less interested in sitting for a portrait?

But the people in your paintings are all Asian American. Unmistakably so.

 Someone once came here and said, “They don’t all look Asian.” And I asked, “What do you mean?” “You’ve made all their eyes really big.” “Well tell me more.” I think they were trying to hint at their understanding of Asians through cartoons, like with slanty eyes. And I was like, “I’m just going to paint them the way I see them.” I’m not going to make their eyes slanty just because I want them to look Asian. I’m not going to put in a rice cooker.

Please tell me more about this man and woman. I like his legs very much. I like the way he is sitting.

This was funny. I think he was a little annoyed because he asked me why I painted him in the background instead of the same plane as his wife. So I was like, maybe I’m secretly feminist. I mean I look at these paintings, and I think I’m a feminist. Even in this one, the female is the central figure. They were so nice. I made that painting, and I sold it, and then they told me they wanted to buy it, and I was like, “Crap.” That’s the other thing that’s weird about making these paintings. You’re putting someone’s life out there. I’m trying to build communities, but then I go ahead and sell the painting? It sits in my guilty conscious. I mean, it’s an important collection, but I keep this guilt.

As artists, putting people’s lives out there always feels a bit treacherous. I can understand the guilt.

 A lot of these portraits, they’re of other people, but they are self-portraits. Because painting is a mirror. I feel painting doesn’t lie. It always tells you the truth. Painting is a truth teller. Yes, I’m painting these women, but I wonder what this says about myself.

Like you learned you were a feminist.

Exactly! There are moments when I think: am I painting the person, or myself? Even with landscape painting, I was painting myself, running away. I think school is really great for doing things that you find hard and scary, because you have all these people around to help you. I could’ve continued painting landscapes in my MFA, but I decided to paint people, even though it’s scary and new. I would rather do that here than in the real world, by myself. You’re pretty much isolated a lot, as a painter. You should totally do something horrible. You have to keep pushing through. If I didn’t do that cartoonish drawing, I wouldn’t be able to do this portrait a year later.