An interest in what lies beneath the surface is at the heart of artist Stella Lai’s work. Lai was born in Hong Kong but now lives in California, and each of the five gouache paintings in her current exhibition contains obvious and oblique references to two recurring themes: the female body and Chinese symbolism. These references serve to unify the show while pointing to the tension between surface appearance and depth in contemporary Asian-American culture.
Collectively titled “I See Your Problem but I Don’t See You,” four of the paintings are large works on paper that contain complex patterns and camouflaged female figures that emerge only upon closer inspection. Archetypal “pinup” silhouettes and more rotund outlines of women are hidden behind classically beautiful renderings of Chinese flowers and geometric shapes. Lotus flowers, cherry blossoms, and a traditional image of a fish evoke the customs of China’s past.
By hiding irregularly shaped female figures behind surfaces of soft colors and rigid patterns, Lai implies that real, modern women can become invisible beneath the socially constructed veil of feminine imagery. Nevertheless, her female silhouettes are so perfectly rendered that even they seem to oversimplify the complexities of contemporary womanhood, and the works remain essentially decorative. “I See Your Problem but I Don’t See You” would be well served with a more acerbic edge.
In “I Love My Foreigner Friends, Loose Weight Pork Chop,” the only work on wood panel, Lai dives more deeply below the surface, with exciting results. At first glance, the piece looks like a classic Tibetan Thangka, or highly symbolic Buddhist image. But Lai replaces a Buddhist deity with a pale, skinny female body inscribed with measurements around her limbs. While the careful balance and precision of the Thangka form is maintained, Lai’s version is a radical departure from tradition. Beneath the central figure, two large ladies stand beside oversized pork chops. In one bold move, the artist draws comparisons between the sacred and the profane, and creates a humorous critique of the ideal woman, Asian or otherwise. Visually interesting, humorous, and thought-provoking, this piece proves there’s more beneath the surface than meets the eye.