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In Conversation: Lauren Chai

We spoke to Lauren Chai, a painter based in San Francisco who found refuge in painting with themes that touch on the Korean-American identity struggle, westernization, feminism, and “Han”.

Hi Lauren! I want to start off with a brief introduction from the artist herself. Who are you and what made you turn to art?
I am a Korean American artist born in Honolulu, first to be born in the states in my family. I was raised by my grandparents and moved to San Francisco in 2010 and graduated in 2015 with my BFA in painting. I was always drawn to art as a form of escapism as well an outlet to express myself. It’s as simple as that, no other hobby stuck and I knew that I’d be an artist. I grew up with traditional customs at home, from speaking Korean to practicing “제사” twice an year, but the rest of my life was very American. Growing up with dual cultures has always brought questions up for me of who I am and where I belong in this weird in-between space which reflects in the paintings I create today.

Which aspects of dual cultures did you find most difficult? And do you have any pieces that reflect this struggle?
The most challenging part of having dual identities to me personally is how Asians tend to have more of a group mentality while Americans focus more on the individual. There is good and bad in both but because they’re complete opposite views, it can cause major misunderstandings.  Some paintings touch upon this such as the piece “The Korean-American Girl”.  It is a self portrait in a traditional dress with my breasts and nipple piercings revealed.  Expressing myself as an individual in an honest way is frowned upon when it is something that can upset the family or the group and this is something that I had to struggle with my whole life.  American lifestyle encourages me to be loud and proud while Asian lifestyle tells me to be quiet and hide myself.
01The Korean American Girl

You get into some pretty heavy topics in your art. I want to dissect some different topics with you starting with feminism. I find that feminism isn’t as big as a movement in Korea as it is in the states. Do you feel like there are major differences in how feminism is approached in Korea?
As Korea is coming out of a more traditional background much like America was during the first wave feminism, they seem to share similarities in terms of gender equality, women’s right to vote, etc., however how far down the line of American feminism Korea will be influenced by; I’m not sure. I notice younger generation females openly smoking cigarettes and wearing revealing clothing, but because Korea is much more rooted in conservatism and oppression, with societal expectations and different values, I can see resistance to western/American feminism which is probably why it isn’t as big of a movement.

Do you have any Korean feminist figures or artists that you look up to?
Nikki S. Lee is one of my favorite contemporary Korean female artists who doesn’t paint but works with video, photography and “performance” art but it’s hard to categorize her. Hyon Gyon is a multimedia sculptural 2D artist (another hard one to categorize) whose work I absolutely drool over. Very visceral, expressive, and shamanistic…really hits me in the gut. I would probably cry if I ever get to see her works in person!

I feel a sense of female empowerment in some of your pieces like “Sleazy Eye Photography” and “Sun, Moon, and Backbone” What were the motivations behind these projects?
“Sleazy Eye Photography” is a more personal piece. The figure is myself and it’s painted from a photo that was taken by a photographer who raped me. It was one of the many shots he took of me that were, so he called “accidental” panty shots. I was very young and innocent at the time and only as of recently I’ve been dealing with this past experience and moving forward. Some people read the Korean tigers as predatorial, but for me they feel like the manifestation of the anger that I couldn’t bring to the surface because I was too hurt and in denial. They are my guardians. My panties are in focus because that was the photographer’s focus; objectifying me. Red abstract marks are painted over my body and mouth with a sense of not being able to speak out or feeling restrained.

SleazyEyePhotograhy_LChai

“Sun, Moon and Backbone” came after “Sleazy Eye Photography” as a more empowering piece. This is me taking back control from all the men in my life who have violated me. This is me expressing myself as a sexually confident being, naked and exposed but not in a vulnerable way. It is me honoring or glorifying openness with sexuality, not objectifying myself. This is me gaining strength with the Korean mountains behind me.
Sun, Moon and Backbone

I also want to talk about “Westernization of Korean Sex”. Are you touching on idolizing white beauty standards or the conservatism of Korean sex? 
You’re spot on, I am raising questions on both western idolization and Korean conservatism of sex. As Korea is becoming more westernized there is a big idolization of the western look: big eyes, high/smaller nose, thin face, etc. Nearly all k-pop stars go through surgery as a requirement. I juxtapose the k-pop girls in sexual poses with traditional Korean ladies gesturing in acceptance to the western woman also in traditional Korean garb. I find it interesting how quickly Korea has become westernized with these super sexualized stars in mainstream media and yet there is still not much talk about masturbation or sex before marriage, lgbt culture, etc.
Westernization of Korean Sex

“Han” is such an elusive concept and I think it’s so interesting that you’re able to manifest that into something visual. What does “Han” mean for you and what was the process like for “Han of the North Koreans”?
“Han” is a very important concept to me. It’s an overwhelming sense of oppression and injustice and unresolved pain. It is cultural in Koreans through Korea’s long history of being occupied and then divided. Han is unique to Koreans. I think that is why Korean people have the most painful looking cry. So I was drawn to the news photos of the North Korean people crying when Kim Jung Il died. They collapsed to the ground, devastatingly crumbled. All of them. When I saw them cry, I saw them genuinely crying over their leader because he was viewed as a deity and father to these people. Even though they are being oppressed, there’s a bit of Stockholm syndrome. As well as the life they are living, is and has been hard all their life, so they are crying because they want out and be able to reunify with family in the south as well. They are crying true tears of Han. I painted from an old Korean shaman mask. This face seemed more of a universal embodiment of Han because as much as it is about the north Koreans, it is also about anyone who can empathize and feel Han.
Han of the North Koreans

What is the current status of “Last Known Location”?
“Last Known Location” show will be on May 5-7, a traveling art show for my missing mother. My GoFundMe goal covering the expenses of this first SF show has been reached, yay! I’ve added a fundraiser show on the second day where I’ll be silent auctioning off pieces with 50% of the profits being donated to Project Jason, a non profit providing resources for missing persons families.  After this I’ll be moving on to the next city, Honolulu, Hawaii.

Are the faces we see in the series, faces of your mother?
Yes, my mother’s faces are in all of the paintings, painted mostly from old photographs or vhs stills of her.

As for the technical aspects of your artwork, your paint strokes are very visible and thick and bold in some pieces while others have a very texturized/dripp-y effect. Does the subject of the painting dictate what sort of “style” you go for?
I never preplan how I’m going to do a painting, the process comes naturally as I’m feeling out what it is that I’m painting.

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You can check out more of Lauren’s work on her website or if you’re in San Francisco, support her show by attending “Last Known Location” on May 5-7.