Born in Chicago in 1990, Homer Shew graduated from the Bard College in 2012, and is presently based in New York City. Since 2015, he has been painting portraits of Asian Americans that are, in his father’s words, improper subjects for oil painting, exploring the social spheres of Asian Americans and how they publicly and privately navigate today’s cultural landscape. His work communicates an inextricable, contradictory link between the mainstream fantasies mapped onto Chinatowns and the perceived positionality of Asian Americans as the fastest-growing minority group in the US. Painting subjects across generations and geography, Shew’s portraits not only insert historical texture and nuance to a contemporary reckoning with the invisibility of Asians in mainstream American narratives, but also celebrate the individuals who mediate and interpret the seismic pressures that exist within Asian America.
Shew’s first exhibition in Hong Kong, Backgrounds in 2021, is exemplary of the artist’s painting practice. Intimate, meticulously textured and richly contextualised, the group of portraits depict Asian American faces and bodies that are charged with sincere and complex emotions, and are tangibly de-alienated. The paintings go beyond a time of intensified racial conflict, and pertain instead to contemporary human conditions in general, as Shew playfully declares that, for this series of portraits that is going to be a life-long endeavour, he would like to paint every Asian American he gets to encounter in America.
It is imperative for Shew that there is a personal, emotional or intellectual connection with his sitter. The painted faces, based on either sittings or photographs, belong to childhood friends, schoolmates, flatmates, colleagues, mentors, and newly met acquaintances. As a prolific reader, Shew also painted a number of literary figures including Hua Hsu, a tenured associate professor of English and director of American Studies at Vassar College, and staff writer at The New Yorker. Hsu has also won the Pulitzer Prize for his memoir Stay True in 2023. Before meeting Hsu in person, Shew was fascinated by his writing in Grantland that “mixed music and culture criticism with an amazing voice.” Shew has made a portrait also for Jia Tolentino, the author of Trick Mirror which interrogates the use of psychedelic drugs and growing up in Texas as a Filipino American. “Her prose is really energetic and confident.”
Fashion designer Brandon Blackwood is the “biggest celebrity” Shew has painted, who happens to be the artist’s neighbour from college. Herb Tam is the curator and director of exhibitions at the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City; Aily Nash is a curator and educator based in New York, a programmer at the New York Film Festival, also The Brooklyn Rail’s contributor. For Shew, a portrait is an occasion on which the artist gets to know about the individual, and raises the question: how is Asianness or Americanness defined. Acknowledging that the individuals are to an extent underrepresented, and are considered reducible to clichéd, indistinct Asian visages, Shew’s detailed and repeated depiction undoes prosopagnosia, encouraging close examinations, admiration and affection.
Contextualised in environments that are familiar and quotidian, the subjects in the paintings often appear slightly older than they are in life. Shew in this way playfully evokes the aesthetic tradition of rendering the subject wise, grand and majestic by giving it more time; in contrast to casting Asian faces and bodies into a future that is indefinite and ominous – as is the case in many science fictions, such as in Blade Runner, where Asian faces appear only as an exotic backdrop – Shew’s paintings anchor the subjects firmly to the moment in which discernible, graduated difference emerges from reality.
Homer Shew earned his B.A. in Visual Art from Bard College in 2012, and is currently based in Brooklyn. Recent exhibitions include: Background, Edouard Malingue Gallery, Hong Kong (2021); Responses: Asian American Voices Resisting the Tide of Racism (Curated by Herb Tam and Andrew Rebatta), Museum of Chinese in America, New York (2021); Dear America (Curated by Minji Lee), CP Project Space at SVA, New York (2019); Practice: in Progress (Curated by Elisa Gutiérrez Eriksen), NARS Foundation, Brooklyn (2018). Shew has completed residencies in Chicago and Preston Ranch, WY, and was the artist-in-residence at The Millay Colony For the Arts (Austerlitz, NY) in 2021, also at Vermont Studio Center (Johnson, VT) in 2022.