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Aberrance & Tradition:
Redefining Beauty from the Past

Art and words by Ricky Chen
September 3rd, 2021

Lady Godiva (2021)
An appropriation of a classic art piece with a queer Chinese subject highlighted instead. Recreating beauty in a more personal way.
model: Vinson Ng

I find myself drawn to artists that fully express themselves and their experiences in their work. The art I create strives to reflect that. This photo series is inspired by both Renaissance character tropes and my experience as a first-generation queer person of Chinese descent. Perhaps it can be understood as a way of getting closer to something I felt I never had. Renaissance art is beautiful but it always seemed as if it was something unattainable for me. I wanted to create work that is affirming and true to myself. Most importantly, however, I am aiming to create something of beauty; just like all the art that I took in growing up.

Aberrance & Tradition (2020)
The figure of an Asian dominatrix against a hand-drawn background depicting Heaven. The idea of dominating your own life and taking control of it.
Model: Kate Choi

My process starts by reflecting upon works of art that left an impression on me in my past. One thing that has always struck me is the idealization and unmistakable beauty of Lady Godiva. The nude woman with hair trailing down to her ankles while riding a horse down the street to protest taxation is unquestionably striking, in addition to being very campy. I then draw out backgrounds with a pen and coloured pencils. I draw much of the inspiration for these backgrounds from Ming dynasty art, especially paintings of deities or scenes of Heaven. I draw these backgrounds because as a young artist, it’s hard to find the money to create an elaborate set. Most of my images in this series are shot in my childhood bedroom, using bed sheets taped onto the walls as backdrops, and whatever I have available as lighting. I also do most of the makeup and sometimes hair for my shoots. After shooting and drawing, I manipulate the images through Photoshop. The end product is something intended to be a tangible representation of who I am and my experiences.

I started creating these works in late 2020. Some of my inspiration came from other artists such as Yin Xin, who does similar work. He would reinvent original European oil paintings through the addition of Chinese subjects. It was particularly meaningful to me, and something I aspired to do in my work.

Prodigy Intellect Wonder Child (2021)
An image of a dunce. It tells the story of a child who fails to rise to a Chinese immigrant parent’s expectations of success in education.
Model: Dante Lee

It felt as if I couldn’t truly understand or appreciate my past work, possibly because it came from a place of simply wanting to make something that looked pretty. I felt lost for a while, especially in the winter, during the pandemic. It was important for me to make something that made me feel acknowledged and seen. If I felt acknowledged and seen by my own work, then it could, possibly, allow people with similar experiences to feel the same way. I am also currently living in a very unaccepting household, and so my art tries to reflect the push-and-pull between being my true self and my family’s very traditional values. My work has achieved its purpose and meaning if other people feel that they see themselves in my art.

Saint Sebastian (2020)
The image of Saint Sebastian is often symbolic for members of the LGBT+ community. Acceptance of pain is a theme in this work.
model: Alger Ji-Liang

Ideally, I want my work to tell stories from my own experiences while incorporating elements of fantasy and surrealism to illustrate the conflicts that may arise between traditional Chinese values and individual self-discovery.

Ricky Chen is an artist and photographer based in Vancouver, Canada. Born and raised in East Vancouver, he creates photographs that take inspiration from his life as gay Chinese-Canadian person. He began shooting in 2019 on a whim and has since found it to be a very effective medium to express himself. 





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