In her vibrant, neon-lit paintings, artist Gigi Chen intertwines ornate jewelry, graffiti, and glowing signs emblematic of urban life with foliage, feathers, and wide expanses of sky. Her acrylic pieces center on birds and other small animals in their natural environments with surreal, manufactured additions: a heron cradles a bright pink house on its back, two rabbits peer over a bush at an illuminated parking sign, and an owl carries an old payphone across a glacial landscape.
A lifelong New Yorker, Chen tells Colossal that once her family immigrated to the U.S. from Guangdong, China, when she was eight months old, they didn’t often venture beyond the city’s confines. “The fear of not being able to communicate clearly with strangers was very prevalent growing up, and it really restrained us from doing too much traveling during my early childhood even though my parents could drive,” she says, noting that it wasn’t until an artist residency in Vermont when she was 18 that she found herself interacting with nature. “I realized how small the Big City really is. I was terrified of the pitch blackness, the dense forest, and the dirt and the bugs. But I was totally in love and overwhelmed by how sublime and random nature is.”
These early experiences continue to impact Chen’s work as she confronts lush, forest ecosystems and cloudy sunsets through the lens of city life. “The dichotomy of the neon onto natural subjects like leaves and birds and trees makes for beautiful metaphors about how people relate to the flora and fauna,” she says. “Adding artificial light sources to a natural environment helped me to reimagine and expand the kinds of stories I could tell and broaden how I could convey personal messages.”
Many of the animal protagonists embody the artist’s experiences particularly those in her new series Light My Way Home, which is on view through October 24 at Antler Gallery in Portland. The metaphorical works are ruminations on home, family, and the security those two provide, and the pieces often portray the artist and her sisters as red-winged blackbirds with her late mother as the blue heron. “Home Away From Home Away From Home,” which depicts the three smaller birds encircling the other as she flies away, “represents what happened after the death of my mother,” Chen says. “Here, we are seeking the sense of safety and stability that my mother once represented to us and endlessly chasing the Ideal of Home.”