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Stella Lai: Let's Stop Pretending

September 1 - November 19, 2005


Stella Lai, the 30 year-old San Francisco artist born in Hong Kong whose paintings have been described as so precise they could pass for digital prints, is holding her first solo museum exhibition at the Arizona State University Art Museum. Stella Lai: Let's Stop Pretending runs September 1 - November 19, 2005 and opens with a public reception August 30, 6-8 p.m. (right: Stella Lai, Portrait of a Roast Pig, 2005, 30 x 48 inches, gouache on Paper, Courtesy of the artist and Lizabeth Oliveria Gallery, Los Angeles)

In Let's Stop Pretending, a newly developed series of paintings and wall installations, Stella Lai reflects on a country that is neither British nor Chinese, but a hyper-accelerated city embroiled in a new global dialogue. The exhibition is organized by the Arizona State University Art Museum, Stella Lai: Let's Stop Pretending will be the artist's first museum solo exhibition.

Lai's exhibition is influenced by the current cultural environment of Hong Kong, which was returned to China in 1997 after 155 years as a British colony. Drawing upon her memories and knowledge of the architecture and language of Hong Kong, Lai has developed an installation of paintings that examine the city's bi-polar history and new status as a hyper-accelerated metropolis dominated by 21st century consumption.

"Using a visual library of fragments of Hong Kong's history, I have created paintings that accurately reflect the city's present nervous condition," says Lai.

Curator John Spiak says Lai's work "at first glance appears simple and easy to define visually, yet on closer examination complex layers begin to emerge. She utilizes traditional Chinese elements such as landscapes, architecture, textiles and typography to make a statement about Hong Kong's marketing of cultural identity and perceived social norms of Asian women."

A recent Art in America review of Lai's work said it had a "graphic sensibility informed by anime and advertising," and that "behind the overall prettiness of Lai's Asian-flavored imagery, there's often a feeling of melancholy or menace."

Lai received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the California College of Arts and Crafts and is currently in residency at the Chinese Arts Centre in Manchester, UK. She recently exhibited her work at galleries in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, San Diego and San Jose and received favorable reviews.

Stella Lai: Let's Stop Pretending is one of three contemporary Asian art exhibitions that opens the ASU Art Museum's fall season with a reception for members and invited guests, October 8, 7-9 p.m. Others include Akio Takamori: Between Clouds of Memory , September 9 - Jan. 16, a mid-career survey of contemporary ceramic sculpture and graphic art by the inventive Japanese artist who lives in Seattle; and Regeneration :Contemporary Chinese Art from China and the U.S., September 24 - December 23, a national touring exhibition of 50-plus artworks by 26 artists, organized by the Samek Art Gallery at Bucknell University.

The exhibition and related programs are supported in part by Friends of the ASU Art Museum.


Gallery guide text

In 1997, after 155 years as a British colony, Hong Kong -- the place where artist Stella Lai was born and raised -- was returned to The People's Republic of China. Reflecting on this momentous shift in modern history, the artist, presently living and working in San Francisco, examines the architecture, language and memories of her native Hong Kong in her most recent work, which attempts to define the decidedly schizophrenic cultural identity of her birthplace.  

In Let's Stop Pretending, a newly developed series of paintings and wall installations, Stella Lai reflects on a country that is neither British nor Chinese, but a hyper-accelerated city embroiled in a new global dialogue.  As Lai comments, it is a country whose "...identity is sought in aggressive 21st century fashion: consumption of product, consumption of foreign culture, and consumption of icons." It is a consumer market society where one can find original fashion designs by Vivienne Tam next to knock-offs of Chanel and Louis Vuitton, ancient Chinese artifacts next to similarly priced replicas, the authentic and fictitious side by side.        

In her earlier works, Stella Lai employed a style reminiscent of manga -- a Japanese word meaning "comics," but now embraced by the western world to identify a look and style of art that uses figure-driven imagery similar to the moving imagery of anime. Each of Lai's pieces told a short story over time through the actions of three animal-headed, human-bodied figures: Peeto the cat, Puchaa the rabbit and CheChe the bear.

Although appearing to be different, the three characters were in actuality different facets of one individual psyche, each exploring and testing individualized roles within society, including deviance, playfulness and conformity. Through these alter-ego personae, who traversed the fractured cityscape, Lai confronted issues of traditional Chinese society, as well as those commonly encountered in any large urban center, such as seedy sexuality and isolation.  

In her most recent paintings, sculptures and installations, Lai continues to provide a perspective on a city that she left over eleven years ago but to which she is still strongly connected through family and frequent visits. The artist's perspective is that of a well-informed insider, or perhaps even voyeur, commenting on the profound influences of her own Chinese culture on both herself and the world.  

For Let's Stop Pretending, Lai has decided to let Peeto, Puchaa and CheChe take a rest from their cultural adventures, shifting emphasis from her characters' interaction with their urban setting to the city's identity itself, including the manner in which Hong Kong exerts its multifaceted influences upon the individual. At first glance, the composition of her current work appears simple and easy to define visually: large figures and objects arrayed against often undulating geometric backgrounds that immediately catch the eye. They are a dynamic reflection of a kinetic city that, to an outsider quick snapshot view, may look easily definable and similar to a New York or San Francisco; yet, on closer examination, the work is a series of deeply complex layers rooted in disparate cultural histories.

According to Lai, her latest works are an attempt to "...accurately reflect the city's present nervous confusion through its architectural history, evolution of its oral language, and the role of memory." They are interpretations of a city dotted with old colonial buildings, once housing British elite, but now hosting families of 12 in one-bedroom apartments. As the artist explains, Hong Kong has "...buildings that feature tile patterns from the early 20th century, ornamental fenestrations, low-hanging electrical wires, and antennae fighting for vertical supremacy."  

In addition, through multi-layered paintings and installation, the artist casts an especially critical eye on the marketing of cultural identity and perceived social norms forced upon the women of Asia, particularly in Hong Kong and mainland China. Lai examines cultural phenomenon such as certain obsessions (food and sex), Chinese typography and phrases from advertising campaigns directed to the contemporary consumer (touts for diet cream, plastic surgery, skin whitening), as well as traditional Chinese flower and landscape paintings, textile designs and architectural elements.  

Stella Lai uses her work to look past the West's stereotypical perception of Hong Kong, one rife with European branding, Japanese comic books and action hero stars in the Jackie Chan mold -- all the clichés with which it is inescapably identified. The work in Let's Stop Pretending is the artist's engaging attempt to create a better understanding of the current culture of her homeland: a Hong Kong formed and imprinted by history while also driven by the frenzy of contemporary technology and consumerism.

John D. Spiak


About the artist

Stella Lai was born in 1975, in Hong Kong, and currently lives and works in San Francisco. Lai received her BFA from the California College of Arts and Crafts in San Francisco. The artist has recently exhibited at the following venues: Lizabeth Oliveria Gallery, Los Angeles, CA; Howard House Gallery, Seattle, WA; Luggage Store Gallery, San Francisco, CA; Cassius King Gallery, San Diego, CA; Institute of Contemporary Art, San Jose, CA; and will be part of a two person show with artist Iona Rozeal Brown at Saltworks Gallery, Atlanta, GA in fall of 2005. Lai is currently the artist in residency at the Chinese Arts Centre, Manchester, UK.



The artist gratefully acknowledges the support of Lizabeth Oliveria Gallery, Los Angeles.

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