Friday, March 27, 2009

Boinking Presidents - Justine Lai Style

Bay Area artist, Justine Lai, is on a mission to screw every U.S. President in chronological order, dead or alive. Her latest score was 18th President, Ulysses S. Grant. If the images makes you uncomfortable, confused, turned on, pissed, empowered..., then Lai succeeded in her current evocative series Join Or Die.

I am interested in humanizing and demythologizing the Presidents by addressing their public
legacies and private lives

Lai has said of her intent. She asserts that "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." She believes this can best be accomplished by interjecting herself into the art to face the same kind of scrutiny. Though presented in a lighthearted manner, Lai does hope it has a deeper impact (pun not intended). What do you think.?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"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." Perhaps...

But that power is so insignificant as to be relatively pointless. Don't get me wrong, I like these images. I like their style, and I appreciate the combination of absurdity and eroticism. But shame, ridicule, and desire? I don't think so. The insertion (not a pun) of a president's face becomes a kind of silly barrier to a complete sense of the erotic, in the same way that porn involving old men or masks tends to either detract from or heighten the erotic affect of porn.

What I think is that Lai is pretty hot and has nice tits. These images would be lovely erotic images were it not for the inclusion of the absurd presidential countenances. Without the presidents they'd be good representational art, well crafted porn illustrations, and as such would be seen to drop in value as fine art - since they'd be representational. Including the presidential element interferes with or reroutes the images by making them somewhat less erotic. If these paintings were of Lai going down on or riding her boy friend or some hot stud these would be just erotic or porno. Drop in the presidents and now you have a bit of a jarring effect. By selecting an historic and political figure Lai can claim that the images are now political or feminist assaults on patriarchy, but that seems like a cover or a foil. Let's look at this straight on. The political, feminist, or patriarchal is not really working very strongly. The thing that really defeats or mediates the erotic or the pornographic is simple absurdity. Th absurdity of having Washington's presidential face and 18th century wig looks ridiculous. And because it is so ridiculous you can no longer critique the image as a representational image. It makes me wonder if the same absurd mediation could be achieved by dropping in the faces of SouthPark characters or famous dead film stars.

There's another twist. Lai's web site shows these images in more detail and going there I found images that were completely ambiguous on their own. Most of us can recognize Lincoln and Washington. But if you view the other images you'd never know that these were anything other than paintings of Lai getting it on with white guys... some of whom happen to be older, really fat, silly looking, or unappealing. So the art itself does not stand on it's own. You have to be clued into the fact that these are presidents. You have to know what the conceit is, or see enough of them to know that these are presidents. So the art, individual or in total, really can't necessarily make a statement on it's own. That's weak, not powerful.

I think underlying all of this is a conventional view of porn and eroticism that says images of sex are inherently about shame or ridicule and therefore about power. This view is really so old, narrow, and tired that it's basically dumb. I'll grant that an image that evokes desire is powerful, but I consider that good. That's one of the great things about erotic art and porn. So now let's look at the images from the perspective of desire. I may be alone in this but to me the object of desire highlighted in these images is not the president, it's the chick. This is standard fare for porn. You might not ever see the guy's face, but you will see the girl's face and a lot more. The object of desire in these paintings is Lai, and her representation of herself is actually more powerful and moving than the presidents. She becomes the focal point of the paintings and the presidents mostly look washed out or absurd.

I can't help wonder if this presidential conceit isn't really disingenuous. Is it sincere - really ?? Or is it a calculated attempt to impose a concept that will make these images less assailable as simplistic representational erotic images. The idea that these images do what Lai claims they do in regard to patriarchy seems a rather sketchy proposition, and certainly not a powerful one. I think the more interesting and important question - if there is one- that these paintings raise is about our view of sexual imagery. What creates desire, what blocks it, what negates it, but that's about sexuality, the psyche, and perception. Honestly my greatest disappointment with these images is that they are not explicit enough.

"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..."

Too bad artists feel compelled to make their work sound deeper and more politically meaningful than it really is.

"...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."

Playful is right. These images are sometimes sexy, sometimes, funny, sometimes grotesque or absurd. Too bad Lai feels compelled to push the old skool power issue so hard in her statement about the work. These images really are better commentaries on what is erotic in porn and what can play with our perception of eroticism.