“The Sauce-Packet Artist”: A Biography on Alum Ethan Chan

All photos courtesy of Chan’s website (ethanchan.org)

When most people think of a sculpture artist, they don’t picture fast-food sauce packets, pre-chewed bubble gum and Happy Meal toys. Yet in his innovative work, Ethan Chan turns these arbitrary objects into cultural poetry. Employing subtle irony, Chan’s work touches on deeply personal issues including racial identity, the dichotomy between globalism and americana and consumer culture.

Since graduating from PLNU in 2020 with a Visual Arts degree, Chan has exhibited in a multitude of solo and group exhibitions around Southern California. As an undergrad student, he began his college career undeclared for almost three years. When taking a drawing class as an elective in his third year, former art professor Jim Skalman began to mentor Ethan and introduce him to other media such as sculpture, installation and performance art. 

“After understanding that I could do anything with art, I thought ‘that’s what I want to do– I don’t want to do anything else with my life but be an artist.’ So I declared the major the next day, started taking sculpture classes and never picked up a paintbrush again,” Ethan said.

It started with a gag gift in his third year of undergrad, when Ethan found inspiration for a piece that would jumpstart his career as an artist. After months of collecting leftover sauce packets from fast food restaurants, Ethan’s roommates decided to give a loaded jar full of cheap, consumerist memorabilia to another friend on the day of his wedding. When their friend found out about the gag gift and refused it, the jar was handed over to Ethan for his artwork. 

One of the first sauce-packet suits Chan created was Santa Suit (2020), which he coined as, “A fat suit made of literal fat.” He then began to create more suits inspired by classic archetypes seen in American culture such as “Vader,” “Cowboy Costume” and “State Trooper.”

Chan, Ethan “Santa,” “Vader” and “Cowboy Costume” 2020

As an exploration of his identity as an Asian-American, Chan began to wear his own suits as performance art. In his piece “Fighting the Loneliness (of Social Displacement)” Chan dressed up in several of his sauce-packet suits which exemplified classic American heroes. These included “Buzz Aldrin,” “Spidey Suit” and “Yankee.” This tongue-in cheek work was an exploration of what it meant to be a person of Asian descent living in America. In the description on his website Chan writes, “between the cheesy staging and costumes constructed solely of sauce-packets, the photographs are made to look as gaudy as possible, questioning ‘What looks more fake: the questionably staged scene, or a person of Asian descent in the costume of an American Hero?’”

Chan, Ethan “Fighting the Loneliness (of Social Displacement)” 2021

Chan’s work on racial identity is further explored in his 2021 piece “Not Your Country. This was a performance piece in which Chan chewed up pieces of bubble gum and shaped them into racist phrases said to him over the course of the last few years. He then stuck the bubble gum-phrases underneath a table where they were photographed. Born in Wisconsin and raised moving around different parts of Asia, Chan’s work speaks to the struggle of being an American-born citizen, yet still feeling a pull towards unaccessed parts of his family heritage. 

“I like to think that most if not all the work meets at the intersection between my background moving all around Asia– so that kind of globalist aspect– with Americana. I’m from here, I identify as American. I don’t feel like I can closely identify as anything else as much– and I guess that’s just how it is to be a mutt.”

When asked what advice Ethan has for current art students at PLNU, he quotes well-known artist John Baldessari and says, “talent is cheap. None of the best artists are talented– they’re just genuinely hard workers who are both intellectual and creative.” 

Currently Ethan works at Quint Gallery and continues to make work focusing on the intersection between globalism and americana. This fall Ethan will be presenting his show, “Planes, Trains, and The American Dream” (with Zach Dobbins) which will be exhibited in PLNU’s Keller Gallery. 

Written By: Gracie Moon