Rachel Uffner Gallery is pleased to present Susan Chen’s Purell Day & Night.
Making lightness out of some of life’s most painful and complicated moments is at the core of Susan Chen’s practice. Such is Chen’s own essence and as such, this ability to transmute compassion almost comes as an after-thought —something that happens naturally while she is in the midst of creating.
With Purell Night & Day, Chen continues a long-standing tradition of artists exploring a seemingly mundane subject in seriality and in the process, uncovering undiscovered meaning below the surface. Prior to March 2020, Purell—a brand in such domination of the hand sanitizer market that the name itself is synonymous with the product—seemed more like a supporting actor hanging out in the background than the leading role demanding everyone’s constant attention. Possessing the liquid disinfectant once seemed reserved to parents hoping to keep their children sanitary, schoolkids sporting a backpack keychain, or New York subway-goers. That all changed when the effects of Covid-19 introduced new society-wide protocols into place. Purell was as essential and mainstay in the general public’s life as their cellphone, keys, and wallet.
Invoking levity into what could feel like a new dystopian reality, Chen elevates this now omnipresent item into the artistic conversation. Three years since we entered into a global lockdown, Chen asks the question of what remains. While much seems to have returned to normal in the years since Covid's outbreak, there are innumerable ways in which the world has forever changed. Rather than going down the rabbit-hole of obvious dismay, Chen utilizes an ostensibly neutral symbol to discuss more concerning topics. She strikes the surface of our shared universal distress, the unprecedented death toll, and pandemic capitalism, but leaves the overt political message up to the viewer.
The notion of time plays a noteworthy role in Chen’s latest body of work. The repetition of recreating the same subject matter serves as a diary of sorts, a daily log of the artist’s presence in her studio and the slight but meaningful compositional changes she imbued onto each canvas. Meditative in nature, this process tapped into a sense of quiet, not dissimilar from a shared emotional state felt during the pandemic, and close observation. Taking time more literally, Purell Clock: Night and Purell Clock: Day ground the exhibition with their obvious take on the passing of time.
Technically, this exhibition marks a turning point for Chen and the thick, built up style her paintings are known for. Inviting in new materials including soft pastels, charcoal, and foam, the body of work experiments with new boundaries while widening Chen’s capabilities as an artist.
With a lightness that invites in all types of viewers, Purell Night & Day gives us comedy and tragedy all at once. Chen purposely creates a space where many unanswered questions remain: What are we left with after an unimaginable disaster overtakes the world? How does life move on from here? Beneath the surface of her series of Purell still lifes, Chen humorously offers subtle insight into our complicated post Covid-19 world.
(Text by Maria Vogel)
Susan Chen (b. 1992, Hong Kong, China) is a 2022 Forbes Under 30 North America Honoree, 2022 Artsy Vanguard Artist, and 2020 Hopper Prize Winner. She received her MFA from Columbia University in 2020 and her BA Hons from Brown University in 2015. Last year, Chen was an Artist-in- Residence at Silver Art Projects, where she participated in their Social Justice & Activism program at the World Trade Center. Her work has been featured on the cover of New York Magazine, multiple issues of New American Paintings, and covered by The New York Times, CNN, Hyperallergic, Artnet, Artsy, Observer, Galerie Magazine, PBS, and more. Chen presented her debut New York solo exhibition, On Longing, at Meredith Rosen Gallery in 2020, and her debut Los Angeles solo exhibition, I Am Not A Virus, at Night Gallery in 2021. The artist currently lives and works in New York City.