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Review by Maya Rubio
Installation view of “Sunny Moxin Chen: Wandering Be-ing” at Distillery Gallery, 2022. Courtesy of the gallery.
In her first solo exhibition, “Wandering Be-ing” at Distillery Gallery, Sunny Moxin Chen presents paintings, textile works, site-specific installations, and sculptural assemblages that reveal a state of impermanence. For Chen, who has lived in Moscow, Beijing, and San Jose, and recently graduated from Boston University’s MFA program, home is a movable point. Moving this point leaves a trail of residue, a leaking impression of self that exchanges, absorbs, and expands when drifting and discovering one’s position in the world. Chen conveys this nomadic path and its ontological ripples through gesture and material. Paint layers into three-dimensional globs that meander through the space, like footprints along a journey. The gallery itself becomes its own kind of border-less map that captures the artist’s transient presence.
In Chen’s paintings, round biomorphic forms coalesce between angular geometric shapes. Wormlike curls maneuver and bulbs coil. Paintings aptly named Intertwined (2021) and Tangled I (2022) evoke a layered network of winding paths and contradicting directions. Some paintings become sculptural, emerging from the floor or spilling off the canvas into space. Textural substances become ambiguous terrains; blacks, yellows, and various blues daubed across Untitled (2022) suggest mountains in parts, sometimes ocean waves or the night sky. Three-dimensionality is achieved with expanding foam and gypsum plaster. Materials like these, as well as found panels used throughout the exhibition, speak to Chen’s attention to resources available in her environment. The materiality of her practice thereby enacts its own sort of tracing, a collection of nearby matter similarly moving along some route of transfiguration.
Two little houses—one blue and one yellow—sit snuggly atop a short step. Behind them, drops of paint globs scatter and create a path that leads to a wall named Wandering Be-ing (2022). This titular installation is a keystone of the show. Multicolored traces of acrylic and house paint serpentine freely across the gallery’s white brick walls. The composition is reminiscent of a deconstructed world map—the squiggles of borders are broken, disconnected and permeable. Chen choreographs a wandering through color gradients; neon green blurs into sky blue blurs into midnight violet. Two pools—one yellow, one blue—sit nearby. The two houses and the two pools are close but not technically connected, yet their corresponding color and proximity implies a chord of connection. Here, Chen displays the possibilities of embodiment, from structured and identifiable units to formless puddles. She depicts, perhaps, how humans can transform into new shapes and identities, yet maintain some enduring soul quality. In the top right corner, a sign of twisting spirals and arrows reads “Money cannot buy you love.” This is one of the only instances of text within the show, so it stands out. Here, she reveals lessons from her transient experience, the importance of holding a spirit in motion, as opposed to physical objects.
In Floating Being I (2022), paint tubes, knobs, and shapes constructed with found PVC create a wall assemblage, another kind of figurative map. Compared to Wandering Be-ing, this piece feels less ambiguous and more specific to Chen’s personal experience. Photographs and ticket stubs—ephemera capturing memory—are caught between arrows, spirals: concepts of spatial direction. All of these segments entangle into some understanding of the artist’s self and her perception of the world. A glimpse into the “being” who conjured this environment.
Sunny Moxin Chen, Floating Being I, 2022. Acrylic, Chinese Ink, found PVC, vinyl, paper, and gap filler. 4’ x 6’. Courtesy of the gallery.
“Wandering Be-ing” is a textural, colorful network of objects—like pins charting a porous map of identity formation. These exact pins can be found pressed into expanding foam in “We’ve come too far to give up who we are,” whose title speaks to the endurance a journey requires. As shapes morph into different objects and spatial dimensions, we consider how Chen’s experience adapting to various cultures felt similarly. The act of map pinning is also a metaphor for the network of pieces within the exhibition. The non-hierarchal presentation renders a topographical study; across the gallery space, like pins, Chen’s work scores its landscape. The site-specific character of the show feels significant too; the artist etches an auto-artifact of presence and ongoing process into a piece of South Boston. Heart pulses beneath this tale of self-creation as Chen honors the meandering journey of life and its creative possibilities.
“Sunny Moxin Chen: Wandering Be-ing” is on view at Distillery Gallery from September 1 to October 15, 2022. A version of this review will be available in Issue 09: Burnout. Subscribe today to reserve your copy.
Maya Rubio is an independent curator and editor at Boston Art Review. Her debut curatorial project, “M’Kenzy Cannon: Please Let Me In,” just finished its run at Boston Center for the Arts. Rubio has also worked on several exhibitions at Emerson College, where she studied the business of creative enterprises and art history.