Interview: Susan M B Chen

February 26, 2019

By Cornelia Smith, Columbia University.

“Susan and I met last semester in John Miller’s Art Criticism class. It wasn’t until I attended the opening of Diaries—a show she curated in the hallway connecting her and two other MFA students’ studios in Watson Hall—that I really had the chance to speak with her beyond the formalities of the classroom. We chatted a bit about the show, her own artistic practice, and the ways in which she balances being a student and an early-career artist.

I met with Susan again in her studio earlier this month to talk more about her creative process, and about the significance of making work that unabashedly reflects her millennial identity. The word “millennial” tends to carry with it some negative connotations; it’s often used by older generations as a way to dismiss certain concerns, especially in regards to the role social media plays in shaping our relationship to the world around us. Susan confronts these contemporary anxieties head-on. Predominantly a painter, Susan explores the liminal spaces between tangible reality and technology, often utilizing images of a portal to warp the worlds contained within her canvases. Her work is colorful and sinuous, a serene abstraction of life through an almost honey-coated lens. Though many of her paintings are large in scale, they are non-confrontational, and instead invite the viewer into a world at once familiar and curious—a realm replete with dreams, oddities, and honest self-reflection.”

CS: I don’t want to dwell too much on the basics—you have a beautiful website that provides that info. I mostly want to focus on how you balance being an artist, curator and student, and how the spaces you occupy have shaped and continue to shape those identities. Let’s start with your most recent show, Diaries, by Mooch Gallery. First of all, what is Mooch and how did it come about? Is there a nucleus of people working on it, or does it change hands often?

SC: Mooch is a mobile pop-up gallery where exhibitions can occur anytime, as long as there is empty space—whether it’s a vacant apartment, abandoned retail space, hallway, closet, etc. It’s sort of a one-woman operation right now, a casual side project of mine, where I mostly just want to help my artist peers (who are mostly in their early-careers) get some more exposure for their work. The art world is silly in the way that artists, who make the work, sometimes feel awkward to self-promote their own art. So Mooch Gallery is sort of my way of helping artists promote the work for them, whether it’s via Instagram, sharing PDFs with collectors and gallerists, or inviting anyone to come see the show while it’s up. I hope that in the future it’s less of a one-woman operation, and that anyone can feel comfortable getting involved. Say, for example, you wanted to curate a group show: we could find an empty space together and make it happen.

CS: Diaries was Mooch’s second show—what inspired it?

SC: With Diaries, I had just moved into my studio here at Columbia and in New York City. I have two wonderful studio hallmates, Stipan Tadic and Joanna Cortez. One is a painter who’s really into comics, and the other is basically a master printmaker in the making. We have this empty hallway sandwiched between us, and there I was thinking, New York real estate is rare, and we have this empty space right here, for free! We have to turn it into a show. And so, we did.

It was low-key, easy to put together. I pulled in my painting professor who I was TA’ing for in the fall, Jose Delgado Zuniga. He had just won the Rema Hort Mann Grant and is having his first solo show this month in Miami. And then with Nicole Basilone, the fourth artist in the show, I basically found her on Instagram. All four of these artists are making work somehow related to documenting their everyday observations. Stipan’s work is about his daily encounters in trying to maneuver cultural differences since moving to America for his M.F.A.; Joanna spends a lot of time questioning the ethics of everyday advertising on the general American consumer and documents her daily discoveries via printmaking; Jose paints to understand how his Mexican-American heritage exists in our current political climate; Nicole sketches the landscapes in her neighborhood in the form of methodic journaling. All four of these artists, in some way, are using their art like diaries. As Picasso once said: “Painting is just another way of keeping a diary.”

CS: How long have you been curating shows, and what inspired you to get into that field?

SC: In my undergrad days, I ran a student-run film production company, where we would allocate groups of students to make 4-5 student-made short films each semester. I would organize a film premiere at the end of the semester—which went on for three consecutive years—to exhibit these mini-movies to the public. That wasn’t so much “art curating” per se, but it was where I learned just how important it is for young artists to make and show imperfect work.

After college, I made it a goal to curate an art show every year. In 2017, I co-curated a 30-person group show at the Korean American Association of New York to support early-career Asian/Asian-American artists. The year after that, I curated a 16-person group show in my empty Chicago apartment. Both shows were for artists who were around my age, a.k.a. young artists without gallery representation. Curating for me is about supporting your peers and artist community, and wanting in some way to make sure no one is left in the dark. If you’re a young artist making art alone, it can be a really scary thing; but then seeing a show of your friends’ and peers’ works might just get you to come out and join the conversation.

CS: I’m intrigued by how Mooch is influenced by Chicago’s apartment gallery culture. Could you explain more about what that culture is and why it’s valuable for artists?

SC: Two summers ago, I was invited to attend an opening at Eddysroom, a gallery run by the artist Austin Eddy, who also went to The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The exhibition space was literally this tiny, two-door closet in the artist’s Brooklyn apartment. At the opening, artists gathered to see the small works of Thomas Cowan in this small, neon lit closet space; it was a really inspirational moment for me.

The function of artwork being exhibited in someone’s home, which is a very intimate space, seemed so powerful for a group of emerging artists. We could all gather to have casual conversations about the art without having to worry about any social hierarchies that can inevitably exist in a white cube setting. After all, the ultimate goal of exhibiting is to have your works seen by the world and to foster conversations around it.

Before moving to NYC this fall, I had spent a year in Chicago attending The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. There’s not much of an art market in Chicago, and so apartment galleries have found a way to dominate the city’s art scene. Julius Caesar, Baby Blue, To Have and To Hold—these are just a few examples of active apartment galleries run by artists my age today. These spaces have zero pressure to perform financially, unlike commercial galleries, and so the artwork and the community really become the central focus. Artists essentially put on shows for their friends, and vice versa. It’s a wonderful way to foster a tight-knit, supportive art community—especially once you’re out of academia.

Running Mooch kind of acts like a reminder that you are the artist, that you are in control, and you don’t need to bow down to anyone else to show your work. If you want to share your work with the world, you don’t need to wait around for some “higher” power to approach you or to grant you permission to do so. You can just go out and do it yourself.

CS: I feel like shows like Diaries push back against the formalities of the art world. The show was not set in an established gallery or a white cube; instead, as you mentioned, it occupied the small hallway connecting the artists’ studios. How do you think setting influences our perceptions of an artwork?

SC: Setting 100% influences our perceptions of an artwork. Brian O’Doherty discusses this idea to a great extent in his essay, Inside the White Cube. The content of a work can change depending on where it’s set, just as space and experience can become part of the artwork’s content, e.g. relational aesthetics. The now-ubiquitous white cube gallery did not develop out of nowhere; it is a product of cultural transformation and a modern sense of practicality. Common art spaces were once sacred settings, like churches and cathedrals; this later shifted to the Paris salon-style hanging, then colored walls in the early 20th century, and now the white walls of post-WWII and the Bauhaus movement.

CS: I want to transition now to audience and accessibility. We were in John Miller’s art criticism class together last semester. The critics we read are also acclaimed artists, and many of them critiqued the institution of art, the mechanisms that sustain the art market, and the problems of “high art” as “real” art. Several artists we looked at—Allan Kaprow, Martha Rosler, and Brian O’Doherty, among others—sought greater accessibility to art and a wider definition for what art itself is.

In a 1981 interview for October magazine, Martha Rosler explained that she wanted to address a general audience, but that “sometimes, though, it’s useful and important to address an art-world audience. Performance, for example, is generally restricted to the art world, and if one doesn’t know that, one’s work will be very ineffective.” In the process of curating a show, do you think about who your audience will be? Who was the intended audience for Diaries?

SC: Absolutely. I think when you’re curating a show, you have to ask: what is the purpose of this show? It could very simply be: I’d like to empower a few early-career artists and bring greater visibility to their work. When curating a show of work exclusively by Asian American artists, I think representation matters; a larger goal in this case would be to garner greater visibility to and for minority artists. When I have a specific curatorial idea, I ask myself: how do I get my ideas across in such a way that my audience leaves having gained a new perspective?

I spend a lot of time thinking about the “millennial” generation and the ways in which I fit into that label. Millennials are all about experiences. Instagram is a slew of experiences, a highlight reel of select moments in our lives. Retail and marketing are being disrupted, reawakened: they’re thinking, how can we get the millennial consumer on board? We have to create retail experiences and marketing videos that draw the consumer in. Sometimes I wonder if artwork on a wall is enough anymore. There is a growing trend for exhibitions to be paired with artist talks, performances, sound, paintings as installation, etc. More and more I feel as though I must not only think about who my audience should and might be, but of the unique experiences that I can curate for my audience.

CS: You spent a year at the Art Institute of Chicago, and now you’re an MFA student at Columbia. How have those environments affected how you view the art industry? Have these spaces changed how you approach your own work?

SC: I think it’s definitely more challenging to make art here in NYC. The art market is right outside your door: there are show openings every week, spectacular museum exhibits, rotating seasons of art fairs. Doing my MFA here can feel pretty distracting, but it’s been good practice to get used to balancing various responsibilities. Being able to make art under pressure, and to really hone in on your time management skills, is definitely a welcome, albeit difficult, skill to develop during my MFA years. Both experiences have really just taught me that studio time is sacred, and that I must protect it at all costs. Success cannot be possible without having and making time to create.

I loved Chicago in that the art market was less in your face. Perhaps this is because Chicagoans seem to have a stronger preference for their sports scene as opposed to the arts, and so The Art Institute really becomes the leading force in the art world there, instead of the gallery scene we have in New York. versus galleries being the dominant. The AIC museum, student work coming out of SAIC, and the artmaking itself becomes the primary focus; which is a really wonderful thing. The lack of an art market in Chicago also allows for apartment galleries and grass-roots artist communities to really flourish.

CS: A lot of your work is influenced by technology and digital media. It is in many ways a social commentary, offering us a glimpse into the warped and wildly colorful realities that are lived within a screen. Many of your titles are simply one or two Emoji. There is a conspicuous absence of people in several of your works. Why is space—particularly the idea of personal space—so important? What does the representation of spaces, which are like snapshots, reveal about the subject of your work? How has technology and social media shifted your approaches to painting?

SC: I believe we are all living in a duality of spaces as a result of the internet and social media. There is the person we’d like to be perceived as: through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc., where filtered and cropped highlights are often all that is posted. Viewers see only the experiences and things we find the most fascinating. The person on our social media might be the person who we would like to be, but not necessarily are. It is all fully encompassing of a psychology of desire.

And then there’s our real selves behind the digital self: the anxious self, the dark self, the imperfect self, the real self that people are afraid to share. There is a bit of Jekyll and Hyde to all of us now because of technology. I equate the constant scrolling that we do on social media to an empty promise of Paradise.

In terms of how technology and social media have shifted my approach to painting, I can’t help but think of how artists use Instagram like LinkedIn. My feed is a constant bombardment of information. When I teach high school students how to paint, I ask them which artists they’re looking at—many of them reference artwork they’ve stumbled across on Tumblr or Instagram. I wouldn’t say technology/social media has necessarily shifted my approach to painting from a formal standpoint, however it does make me think a lot about how our psychologies as art makers will inevitably change. I am still learning to navigate the pros and cons of seeing so much imagery on a daily basis.

CS: You explained in an interview last fall for ACS magazine that “being an artist requires you to wear multiple hats.” Among your many hats, what has being a student meant to you over the last few years? What made you decide to pursue an MFA?

SC: I think being a student has reminded me that making art is most interesting when it’s used to learn something that is new to you, or to discover something about yourself that you hadn’t known before. Learning is essential to the lifelong journey that works in tandem with your studio practice. The beauty in being a student is that you’re not afraid to take risks and make mistakes. Even when I produce a series of “bad” paintings, the process never fails to teach me something important. Our culture tends to prize the final outcome, the grand finale, and so it is self-care to remind yourself that the journey is just as, if not, an even greater prize to celebrate.

I wanted to pursue my MFA for practical, professional purposes. If being an artist was to become my lifelong career, I knew I needed—and wanted—to do my homework. I wanted to advance my knowledge in my formal/technical painting skills and art history, as well as meet a network of like-minded peers who take art just as seriously as I do. I also wanted the experience of teaching and being in constant dialogue with other artists while simultaneously having time to prioritize my studio practice.

CS: Last question: any words of advice or encouragement for current/curious students, artists, and/or curators?

SC: People are not lying when they say the work is the only thing that matters. If you believe in your work, all the other wonderful things will follow through. Stick to your vision, that itch to make what you want to make regardless of what others tell you. And lastly, the art world is small: be kind to one another. Kindness is the only thing that really matters in the end.

Susan’s work will be on view at this year’s Spring/Break Art Show, March 5-11, as part of the Collective 131 booth. Check out her website for more details.
The Journal of Art Criticism
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