Sunday, April 19, 2009

Justine Lai: Join or Die

I came across painter Justine Lai's work on one of my favorite art blogs, ILoveBadThings where her series Join or Die inspired a recent post. Lai writes on her site,

"In Join Or Die, I paint myself having sex with the Presidents of the United States in chronological order. I am interested in humanizing and demythologizing the Presidents by addressing their public legacies and private lives. The presidency itself is a seemingly immortal and impenetrable institution; by inserting myself in its timeline, I attempt to locate something intimate and mortal. I use this intimacy to subvert authority, but it demands that I make myself vulnerable along with the Presidents. A power lies in rendering these patriarchal figures the possible object of shame, ridicule and desire, but it is a power that is constantly negotiated."

I love the ambiguity of this work. Perhaps I am reading more into it than Lai intends but I see these as a kind of literalization of an outsider's desire to join with the country. Beyond the obvious allusions to pornography I find something touching and heartfelt about these images. Lai describes "inserting herself" into the timeline of Presidential authority to subvert it, not simply depicting Presidential authority inserting itself into her. The renegotiation of power she is concerned with is staged literally through sex but I don't think of the paintings in Join or Die as erotic works other than in the most obvious sense.

In following the chain of links on this series around the web I came across some interesting commentary about these works. Stefan at Collectiva wrote,

"You can already begin to anticipate the media circus that will cloud around Lai when she reaches the point in this series in which she depicts hereself screwing all of the living President, especially Obama…"

...And I thought, why "especially" Obama? But then I thought... eh, maybe he has a point. Sure, the racist nutjobs will lose their shit, but then progressives might too. There are already strange disconnects between the sorts of caricatured representations Americans usually subject their Presidents to and the long tradition of racist depictions African Americans have had to endure. This is the sort of tension that haunts Presidential kitsch like the Obama Chia Head.

Of course, since she is an Asian American woman painter the racial angle is not limited to her subjects. One of the comments to Stefan's Collectiva post, from a poster called "ibi001" was telling. S/he complained,

"No respect for the highest office in the United States of America…
You should be escorted out of the country… You are no American. Youi (sic)
must be planted in From Communist China… I believe in free expression…
But come on… Sex with Jesus next… Doesn’t anybody have any
respect for anything????? When they deport you…I will wave when they
put u on the ship to Russia or China…. Get a life… You made yourself
a name… and now every American , I say true American should see u deported…
Get out of the country please….We don’t need idiots like you…"

This one is right from the playbook. You got your "go back where you came from" (Lai was born in San Francisco), you got your "insert undesirable political philosophy here", you got your "true American", contrasted with eastern identity... because they can't possibly be compatible, etc. etc. etc. But the thing that fascinates me about this comment, besides the fact that it sounds like it was sent via time machine from 1964, which elevates it beyond the usual orientalist/racist blather is... sex with Jesus? How do you get to sex with Jesus? I mean, "communist China" is good but "sex with Jesus" is golden!

(Funny story:

My Mom and I used to go to the same shrink... don't ask... and like every shrink in the universe his office was loaded with shitty art. Among these was a pen and ink drawing of a shirtless hippie laying on a bed with his hand in his pocket. One time, in describing where she was sitting in the room when she'd had a particular insight, my Mom said to me, "I was sitting under that picture of Jesus masturbating!"

... And I think that answers the unspoken question, "Gee, why did you go to a shrink, Joe?")

On her website Lai describes the sexual and political content of her work as a "spectacle" that she approaches with "a certain playfulness." She writes,

"It would be easy to let the images slide into territory that's strictly pornographic—the lurid and hardcore, the predictably "controversial." One could also imagine a series preoccupied with wearing its "Fuck the Man" symbolism on its sleeve. But I wish to move beyond these things and make something playful and tender and maybe a little ambiguous, but exuberantly so. This, I feel, is the most humanizing act I can do."

To learn more about Justine Lai visit her website here.

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