Stella Lai‘s paintings are so bright and lush that it’s easy to get lost in their beauty, and not notice the macabre cast of characters lurking in the background, until it’s too late. Each piece is delivered to the viewer with a smile and a wink–inviting us in to play, but not telling us what game. In classical poses, women sit atop Lilly pads or wander in winter wonderlands, only things are never quite as they should be. Born in Hong Kong and currently living in Los Angeles, Stella Lai is a graduate of California College of the Arts who has exhibited internationally, and whose work currently graces the cover of Giant Robot Magazine, and has been seen in VOGUE China and Flash Art.
DailyServing.com’s Allison Gibson recently got a chance to pick Lai’s brain about her multinational inspirations and the hidden messages found in the worlds she creates.
AG: Your work–especially the more recent stuff–is so fantastical and sprawling. Each piece is like an epic tale. How would you describe your process and the inspiration for your paintings?
SL: I do a lot of research on the web and try to keep up to date with all the current events happening in China. Sometimes certain things kind of jump out at me and I know I want to do paintings about them, but I try not to just illustrate something that’s going on. So once I have a topic, I will do more research and then try to conceptualize it in my head–try to fit it in my world.
AG: Most of the iconography and visual references in your work refer to Chinese culture, and as you said, your inspirations come from Chinese current events. Though you work in Los Angeles now, do you consider your work to be inherently Chinese?
SL: Growing up in Hong Kong was interesting, it being a British colony and all. The city has been divided into two extremes: traditional Chinese and Western influences. So all my life I have been very comfortable going between the two worlds, and I guess in some way it makes sense for me to be living in Los Angeles and doing work about Chinese culture. I really enjoy the cultural clash every time I go back and forth between the two places.
AG: So, was moving your studio from another part of LA to Chinatown a coincidence or intentional for your work? The neighborhood kind of represents the duality that you were explaining.
SL: Actually, I just moved my studio again to Downtown, but I loved my studio in Chinatown. In some ways Chinatown is very nostalgic, but it’s also very strange. It’s like a hybrid of cultures all mashed into one giant cluster, and then shipped to a deserted island.
AG: That’s an interesting interpretation of it! You recently had a major solo exhibition, “Fat Children Ruined My Life”, at F2 Gallery in Beijing. How was your work received over there versus how viewers receive it at shows in the States?
SL: I think my work appeals to both Chinese and non-Chinese viewers. It’s interesting because Chinese women are more excited about my work than Chinese men. When I had my show in Beijing, women would want to chat with me and were excited about sharing their thoughts. I think the work speaks to them on a very personal level, whereas when I have shows here in the U.S it’s mostly men who like the work.
AG: That makes sense because, on the surface, the subjects of many of your paintings are beautiful, almost nymph-like women. But, then there are so many details that viewers might not notice, or maybe disregard because they don‚Äôt make sense initially. What, if anything, do you want viewers to walk away with after seeing your work. Does it matter if we do or don’t “get” all of the iconography?
SL: I have been trying to create symbols and meaning in my work, and story lines in my imaginary world. What I am trying to do is to create something that’s very beautiful to look at, and then when you look more into it there’s something that’s a little bit strange or fucked up. For example, in my painting “Summer”, the three women symbolized “evil” and the boy and the girl symbolized “good”. So it’s like the battle between good and evil. But I don’t expect people to understand everything about my work. If they don’t get it it’s ok.
AG: Some of your most recent work, particularly for the F2 show, has been large-scale, and diptychs or triptychs. How is your work evolving and where do you see it going?
SL: Now I have been working on smaller pieces again. It’s nice to go back to smaller scale, and it helps me to think about my work more. But I like to go back and forth. Right now I am working on a new body of work that’s based on Chinese hell. Like the piece “Hell: Recycling” [which is the center panel of a triptych] in the Beautiful/Decay show right now [at Kopeikin Gallery].
AG: That was more scaled like your smaller pieces from the past. It looked like Dante’s “Inferno”. The 9 circles of Hell.
SL: Yes, it’s very similar. It has lots of details. It’s more about this fucked up world, but I am also trying to make it beautiful.
AG: What other upcoming projects/shows do you have?
SL: I will be going to Hong Kong in May for the Hong Kong Art Fair, where my gallery from Beijing will be showing some of my work. And In July, I will be doing an artist residency in Honolulu at Thirty Nine Hotel. I am very excited about that.