Studio visit with Xuan Chen: Between 2D illusion and 3D complexity

Light and color are the subjects of Xuan Chen’s abstract visual art. Drawing influence from the California Light and Space Movement and Color Field abstraction, her dazzling artworks exist between the parameters of 2D surfaces and 3D forms. Part paintings, part wall sculptures, Xuan’s artworks leap out at the viewer and invite closer inspection. Using bright, neon color palettes, thread, pooled layers of paint, geometric shapes and the interplay between negative and positive space, Xuan’s project-based work can be understood as an ongoing exploration of the myriad properties of light.

Named after the Chinese ink-brush Xuan paper, one might think that Xuan was always destined to be an artist. But that’s not how her story goes. Growing up in China before immigrating to the USA with her family, Xuan only started taking art classes while she was finishing up her engineering degree at UC Berkely. This background perhaps accounts for Xuan’s almost scientific approach to deconstructing visual elements into their core conceptual characteristics before refiguring them in her abstract works.

We were very happy to have the opportunity to catch up with Xuan and find out more about her creative process, her thoughts on color, light, and the New Mexican desert. Enjoy!

AMM: Hi Xuan! You’re a permanent resident of the USA and humorously describe yourself as an “Alien of Extraordinary Ability” in Visual Arts. How does your cultural background influence and inform your artwork?

XC: As humorous as it sounds, my declaration is an insider’s joke that only those who went through the immigration process in the United States will understand. “Alien of Extraordinary Ability” is actually my official legal status in the States. It is the culmination of governmental bureaucracy that deserves an art project sometime in the future. As for my cultural background, I grew up in China before I came to the US for graduate school. My family had moved around China many times when I was little, which lead to me attending five different primary schools. Because I have experienced so many different cultures in my youth, I am always interested in how people view the world differently. I think it influenced why visions play such an important role in the way I approach my art.

AMM: Can you tell us about your interest in color theory and how you incorporate this in your work?

XC: I think colors are the carrier between light and space. We see light and spaces because different colors form contrast in objects and our surroundings. In the 2D world, spaces are purely composed by color and shapes, where shapes are essentially defined by colors as well. Without color, we cannot distinguish shapes, can we? In the 3D field, if we close our eyes, we can feel the space by touching it. Color is the perfect medium that bridges between a 2D illusion and a 3D complexity. Because I am interested in how light and space works in both a 2D and 3D world, exploring color is part of it.

AMM: What’s your creative process?

XC: I am a project based artist. Besides paintings, I have worked on animated films, graphic stories, and interactive installations. Each project is a creative journey for me. For a particular project, I usually develop a concept, which can sprout from anything in my daily life, from a place I have seen, an article I have read, a conversation I have had, or even an art piece with which I am currently working. Once I find an interesting concept, I use all kinds of artistic approaches to manifest this concept. The bodies of work in Light Threads, Light Matter, and Screens started when one day my friend randomly asked if I wanted the thirty Masonite panels she was carrying on her way to the dumpster. I looked at the pile of thirty perfectly cut iPad-sized panels and figured I might do something to them. I hauled them to my studio. After gessoing nine panels, I hung them in a grid format on the wall and that was the moment the first nine screens came to life. At that time in 2013, I had been working on Edges Series, which examines the colors in 3D digital imaging. Later, I decided to paint the back of the screens to make them glow like a digital screen. After Screens, I cut geometric shapes off the solid surfaces to create more moments of light and space in the work. Then, I bent the panels to make geometric compartments in which light reflects on the works. This project later became Screens II. Finally, I started to use threads to physicalize light rays. There comes my latest work titled Light Threads and Light Matter. You see that my creative process evolves as the time goes. Many times, things do not come out as I originally planned and may become something else, but good surprises always come in the end. That is what fascinates me most in the creative journey.

AMM: On your website you include extensive statements for each body of work. What role does research play in your practice and do you find that writing and speaking about your work influence the work itself in any way?

XC: As for research, when I have an idea, I look into what has been done by other artists and how I can do it differently. I finalize my ideas in my studio through trial and error. For me, work always comes first; writing and speaking come second. I treat visual art like a different language from written language. When I create a body of work, I do not think about how I can speak it out later. Rather I make them using the language of the work. When people see the work, they always ask what they are about, how I make them, or what I was thinking while making them. That is when the writing kicks in. I try to use written language to explain them as much as possible to help people understand. While making my work understandable, writing does help me to name the bodies of work and to see the cohesiveness within each body.

AMM: Can you tell us more about your conceptual interest in playing with 2D and 3D elements in your work?

XC: As I mentioned in my creative process, once I find an interesting concept, I use different kinds of artistic approaches to manifest this concept. I am interested in the possibilities between 2D digital image-making and 3D physical existence. Digital image-making has become so advanced that it is possible to imitate, produce, or reproduce the “physical world” with astonishing accuracy and detail. My idea is to apply the analog process in the digital world as if light is a physical medium. With this idea in mind, I find anything I can think of to imitate light in the physical world. I have created reflective light by painting the reverse side of the work, bending part of the piece to cast light, arranging embroidery threads to imitate light rays, and laying thick paint drips in the same way as digital colors interact with each other in adobe software.

AMM: What does a day in studio typically look like for you?

XC: It depends. I work in stages. When I am working on a particular project, I spend eight hours a day painting in the studio like a regular job. When I reach a point in a project that I run out of methods to explore a concept, I stop. I usually take a few months off without making any art. More often than not, I spend eight hours a day in my studio to write for grants or process images for shows; the administration stuff that every artist endures.

AMM: Are you influenced by the space you work in? What does your studio look and feel like?

XC: I am not influenced by the space I work in, but I am often inspired by my finished work. I often ask myself, “What else can be done to this work?” My studio is part of my home. I enjoy the freedom of being able to work anytime in the studio and fully engage in work without distraction. However, more often than not, I do miss the environment of a shared studio away from home where I can socialize with like-minded artists and make inspiring conversations. It is a paradox.

AMM: You didn’t start out studying art. Can you tell us a little about your artistic journey and share any defining thoughts, insights or encounters you’ve experienced along the way?

XC: As I mentioned before, my family moved around a lot when I grew up. I did not have the opportunity to visit art museums or take art classes. To kill time, my parents provided me Chinese calligraphy books and asked me to imitate the words. As absurd as it is, that was how Chinese kids learned writing in the 1980s. I guess that was my early drawing training. I remembered my family subscribed to Art Magazines in which it introduced western art. Those magazines were my first art history education. That was where I first saw reproductions of all the famous western artwork from ancient to modern art. Although I could not read the words yet, I was drawn to the images. Later my parents sent me to a college where there was no art concentration. I did not know there were other possibilities at the time. After I came to the States, out of pure curiosity, I started to take art classes at the University of California, Berkeley. I really enjoyed that freedom of expressing my thoughts in the form of art. No other field can have such freedom. So I stayed.

AMM: Do you think that your engineering background influences your approach to making art? What inspires you?

XC: I do think my engineering background influences my art making. The creative processes in engineering research and art making are the same. Engineers create in labs as artists do in studios. Both employ trial and error. Engineers present their creation in data, research papers, or products; artists show artwork. As I mentioned before, I am inspired by anything in my daily life, from a place I have visited, an article I have read, a conversation I have had, someone else’s artwork I have seen, or an art piece I am currently working on.

AMM: Do you have a motto or philosophy that your work by?

XC: Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. It is the title of a book documenting conversations with artist Robert Irwin, written by Lawrence Weschler. The book is very popular in the US among art students. It is where I reached the ‘aha!’ moment about paintings. I realized that a good painting is about creating a space rather than decorating a space.

AMM: What’s next for you?

XC: Having lived in New Mexico for almost nine years, I have visited many places in this beautiful state. I would say geographically it is one of the most interesting states in the US. It has all kinds of natural and cultural features, from the rocky mountains to high deserts, from deep gorges to karst caves, and from ancient Native American settlements to nuclear weapon test fields. Strangely, most people would think the desert is empty and barren; however when the light shines onto the land here, all substances come to life. The “empty” land is full of colors, colors you won’t see in other places in the world. I am interested in the way the natural light interacts with the landscape. When you stand in the “empty” land, you can feel the touch of the light as if it is something tangible. The feeling is hard to describe in words, but I will use my next project to convey the idea visually.

Find out more about the Xuan Chen via her website:

 Text written and interview conducted by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Mag. 

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