Lai of the Mind

Think women in the United States are under a lot of pressure to be thin, young and pretty? Try being a girl in Asia, says Hong Kong-born artist Stella Lai (pronounced "Lie").

"There's a commercial in China where a woman says, 'I'd rather be dead than fat,'" Lai says by telephone from England, where she's serving as artist in residence at Manchester's Chinese Arts Centre. But, um, doesn't the fact that Lindsay Lohan lives on this side of the Pacific give us the trump card in the Thin Über Alles contest? "In America, I can talk about it and there will be a group of people who say, 'Yes, that is ridiculous,'" Lai says. "In Asia, it's embedded so deeply that no one questions it."

China's beauty obsession is just one of the topics Lai tackles in her one-woman exhibition "Let's Stop Pretending," kicking off with an opening reception on Tuesday, August 30, at the Arizona State University Art Museum. Lai's brightly colored paintings and an installation also tackle the food and architecture of Hong Kong, cultural signposts of what the island has become since it rejoined mainland China in 1997 after a century and a half as a British colony. Lai's work takes Chinese tradition and morphs it into something more complex, much like modern-day Hong Kong itself. "My work is about Chinese identity," says Lai. "It's about the struggle between how the East looks at the West and how the West looks at the East."

In the past, the 30-year-old's work drew its Asian flavor from elements of anime. In this show, Lai incorporates elements of traditional Chinese painting to create pretty pieces that pack a subliminal wallop. "They look like something decorative, but when you look closer, you see the naked woman," Lai says. "It raises questions."

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Leanne Potts