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Exhibition Review

Return to the old normal: after-thought on Susan Chen's Purell Night & Day

Presley Ackeret

Aug 23, 2023

Purell Tower (both details), 2023 
Courtesy of the artist and Rachel Uffner Gallery, New York 
Photo: JSP Art Photography 



While Susan Chen’s Purell Night & Day at Rachel Uffner Gallery (Jul 13 - Aug 18, 2023) at the surface supplied a vibrant, light, and playful visual, it only took a moment of slowing down to realize that the exhibition carried with it a piercing high-frequency panic lingering just beyond the borders of each artwork. The weight of the situation was made plain for us: does there and will there ever exist any other small plastic bottle of the most recognizable hand sanitizer in our world that stands as a symbol for universal distress? Is this small bottle our trustworthy friend, deceiving foe, or representative of something more complex altogether? 


For better or for worse, throughout the extended time in which we weren’t able to interact with the rest of our planet, these little Purell bottles were our most familiar and cherished companions. Chen’s works pay homage not only to the ubiquitous symbol of cleanliness and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, but also serve as a collection of intimate portraits of someone we once knew better than we do now– someone we once trusted, relied on, admired. Moreover, Chen’s portraits of our beloved Covid companion become that much more hard-hitting when we realize that, indeed, they are actually portraits of us, reflecting and baring all-still collectively secret lives we survived not that long ago. 


For many, the honest and shared truth is that the pandemic provided a desperately-needed break from the relentlessly merciless nature of modern life. COVID-19 pandemic gave us the gift of feeling both less alone and more alone than ever, feeding two opposing deficiencies borne from the groundhog-day absurdity of our existences. For once, the world was forced onto the same blank page. Mid-twentieth century French author Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette echoes this shared experience: “...there are days when solitude is a heady wine that intoxicates you with freedom, others when it is a bitter tonic, and still others when it is a poison that makes you beat your head against the wall.” As Colette was speaking so relatably to the side effects of war, we then have to ask ourselves: who thrived during our war? Who won out in the world of pandemic capitalism? Who thrived as a result of mass suffering? 99.99% of the time, the answer isn’t quite so obvious. This time around, for those who were left feeling like the 0.01% - stranded, powerless, utterly alone - the answer was, over and over, welcomed right into our own hands.


The old English idiom of ‘night and day’ brings a stark contrast between the realities of our existence within the pandemic and eventual return to ‘normal life’, while also giving way to the time-independent nature of the period spent in isolated lockdown. In the latter sense, Chen’s clocks emphasize the hyper focused yet ever-useless presence of a machine built to define and bring order to our worlds. In reference to the shift between night and day, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to feel like a hazy fever dream Mother Earth has since woken from. Shaken awake, we’re forced back into our ‘old normal’ as if nothing even happened.



Purell Clock: Night, 2023 
Courtesy of the artist 

Consider Chen’s series, B-side to Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans– a keepsake of the absurd. The artist, who, herself, is allergic to the soft pastel sticks she used to draw each clock work in the series, wore full PPE and a respirator throughout their creation, providing an even more ironic realism behind the scenes. Through these works, Chen pulls back her own COVID-era curtain to unveil the vulnerable childlike inner-world of her pandemic mind. Though it seems the artist herself remains unsure whether the subject she’s portraying was a beloved confidant, playmate, or Stockholm Syndrome-esque captor, she surrenders the matter to the audience. In the group therapy milieu that is the Rachel Uffner Gallery, Chen offered the permission to feel whatever it is needed to felt, asking – are we okay? Was what we went through okay? Will we ever be okay?

This particular group of still lifes embody fully the defenseless catatonia of humanity that, at once, was exposed, slow-cooked and forever burned into our timelines. And, for those who found solace in the existential solitude the shared shutdown forced onto our carefully-manufactured realities, these still lifes live on as a feeling, a place, an identity – a vanished world – stolen and captured in time. Through Purell Night & Day, Chen invited the audience to relive and work through the lost time with her. 



The review was written retrospectively, and Susan Chen’s Purell Night & Day was on between Jul 13 - Aug 18, 2023 at Rachel Uffner Gallery, New York. For more information about the exhibition, please click here