At first glance, Stella Lai's paintings look like benign decorations, all delicate flowers, bright colors and pretty Chinese calligraphy.
Look closer, and you'll see her Asian-influenced pieces are actually about how rotten it is being a woman or an animal in her native Hong Kong, where the culture is apparently as obsessed with sex and consumption as we are on this side of the Pacific.
In Lai's paintings, sad yellow chicken carcasses and plump pink pork chops morph into faceless silhouettes of swimsuit-clad women. A roasted pig, cherry-tomato eyes blazing and mouth gaping grotesquely, is surrounded by flowers. Intricate geometric patterns and flowers mask naked women in lewd poses. The message is as subtle as a kidney punch: Women aren't much better off than animals. Both exist to satisfy the Hong Kong appetite for pleasure; both are adornment more than living, breathing creatures.
"Let's Stop Pretending," paintings by Stella Lai
ASU Art Museum, 10th Street and Mill Avenue in Tempe
Continues through November 19. Call 480-965-2787, or see web link.
Lai delivers the harsh analogy in a graphic style that reflects the schizophrenia of her native land, where the psychic tides are pulled equally by Britain and China. In Hong Kong, skyscrapers adhere to ancient rules of feng shui, and Buddhists carry Hello Kitty cell phones. She surrounds her exploited women and animals in delicate Asian prettiness, right down to the papercut plum blossom branch that covers an entire wall of the gallery. It makes the disregard for these creatures all the more bewildering.
The most resonant image is of a dead chicken, plucked and ready for the stewpot. Its head and feet are still attached; its lifeless features are frozen in an expression of resignation. Behind the carcass is an insanely, incongruously lovely pattern.
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Any woman who has ever had a man look at her breasts instead of her eyes when he talks to her will realize this chicken is a kindred spirit. The bird knows what it feels like to be a body instead of a being.