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SALT Profile: Gigi Chen

What’s it like to be an art star?
Ha! I wish! You mean the show Art Star. I auditioned on a total whim. I remember standing in line with my five paintings. Jeffrey Deitch hosted the show and the interview took place in his gallery during the Keith Haring exhibit. Talk about surreal!

I didn’t understand the art world at this point. I had no clue what I was getting into, who these people were or the impact it would have on my life but out of 400 people I was selected.  I was lucky enough to be a part of the 8 artists who were chosen. That was on my 23rd birthday. 

What was the format of the show?
It was more documentary-style than reality TV. No one was voted off. We were all so different it would have been hard to compete against one another. It was about showcasing new artists. They showed us making art, we had assignments, we were involved in Open Studios and a few months after the show concluded we had a group show for two weeks at Deitch Projects at the big space that used to be on Wooster Street. That’s actually where I made my first sale!

So the show became your launching pad?
I guess you could say it was a launching pad and a crash course. After the show with Deitch, I was selected to participate in the Queens International show at the Queens Museum. I was picked up casually by some galleries in Philly and started getting group shows in NYC. I was never officially represented but have been on the roster of a few galleries.

It’s funny, at the time people knew about the show but no one really saw it. The show was on the VOOM network. And apparently is always on somewhere because of cable and satellite stations. People still contact me about it. It’s been 8 years and I am only now beginning to understand the significance.

Were you a studio assistant during this time?
Yes. I was hired by Kathleen Gilje during my second semester at SVA. Kathy was a conservator at the Capodimonte in Italy and is one of the world’s best in-painters. I’ve been a studio assistant my entire adult life, since I was 19. 

Kathy makes works in the fashion of old masters. I call her “My Frankenstein” because I was supposed to be working in the commercial world but she showed me this whole other weird and exciting lifestyle.  She made me into the Art Monster that I am today.

Walking in her studio for the first time; there were what looked like Bronzino and DaVinci’s on the walls. I always wanted to be like DaVinci. I wanted to be so good at drawing and realistic painting but I had no idea if I could or not.

My first assignment was to paint a section on a project she had been working on. I remember praying ‘please let me be able to do this’ and I did. I had no idea that I could even paint in oils. I was barely 19 years old.  I did predominantly prep work and underpainting and she’s the one that showed me how to clean the edges. She always says that the edges are the difference between a good painter and a shitty painter.

Kathy recently had a Retrospective at Bruce Museum in CT. I’ve been with her since 2000 and have assisted in the creation of many of the paintings shown in one way or another. Seeing her retrospective was like seeing all of my 20s. She has been my biggest influence. I fell in love with her lifestyle. She was independent; her life seemed exciting and somewhat scary.

How did your work develop?
When I left college I was just a little behind technology and I graduated at a time when animation was shifting from traditional to digital. I was caught in the middle and in a sense my skills were already obsolete. I felt like my hands were too good. I am good with computers, actually, but I prefer tangible art. I just didn’t want to go back to learn computers, much less end up sitting behind one. I couldn’t write so painting and drawing was my way to share my experience and work through it.

Tell us about the new series for your show at Mighty Tanaka.
The series is called “Pretty Cute: Interiors”. The work is very mature and feminine but not overtly so. It’s very personal and solitary. As an artist you spend a lot of time working alone. You have to make time for love and a relationship. This works feeds into an obsessive quality by creating intricate patterns. The work is quiet and repose. Not action, action but moment-to-moment. It’s not about portrait and more about portraying a mood.

It’s the first time I used only women. They were mostly women I am friends with and others that I wanted to get to know better. People really open up to you when you put them in a huge dress and have them sit for beautiful pictures. I spend a lot of time with “boys”. My studio mates, co-workers, the guys I've dated… It became a way to reconnect with my own femininity.

The interiors are based on photos I took at the Met, subway patterns at 72nd Street and images from pattern books. The dresses aren’t real dresses but fabric I pin on them. I take lots of photos. You never know who will work. It’s not about beauty as much as being interesting and engaging.

Why drawings?
I wanted to show my drawing skills and inspiration derived from Sargent and Ingres. My drawings are much more narrative and personal. Paintings have a “wow” factor but drawings have more space. They are lighter and airier. They demand intimacy you have to get close for a drawing. They aren’t what they appear from far away.

What advice would you give to young artists?
Five years ago I would just say make art but now I’d want them to understand what it’s like to make art your living and how hard it is to make money. People know me, they recognize my work but I still have a studio full of art that needs to be sold.

Being a Fine Artist isn’t like any other career, every choice is yours. It requires lots of discipline. It’s solitary. It’s not only about being your own business but about being the total package. You are completely responsible for yourself but you also have to form a community, get yourself out there and know what other people are doing. 

If you have it in you and really want it you have to do it. It’s about pure desire to make art and you just can’t help it. I’ve been making art since I was 11. It’s a compulsion. It was like a monster takes over and you just can’t stop. Since I stopped working full-time I am in the studio all day but some days I’d be making the same amount of money playing with pigeons on the street.

Any final thoughts?
I actually feel more like I am slowly making my own way in the art world. And I feel that I am very comfortable with where I find myself at 31.  When I was first starting out, an older artist lamented to me that they were once part of “The Big Table” but then got lost. I decided a few years ago that there was no such thing. The fact that I never went through normal fine art school allowed me to have a very different perspective and cobble my own story and make my own way. If anything, I would like to make my own Table.

Posted by Sharon Reaves on 6/18/13 | tags: figurative







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