Arts Illustrated

September 4, 2020

The 1% Magic

‘99% Unreal’, Taiwanese artist Lai Chiu-Chen’s first solo show in the United States, presents a unique worldview, a unique lens to view the whole truth  – so much more than what it seems to be

Team AI

The big, black, almost circular mouse ears are probably one of the biggest icons to come out of the 20th century. Easily recognised the world over, Mickey Mouse’s influence spanned nearly a century across multiple generations. When Mickey is first introduced to a toddler, it serves as an intro to a hybrid of animal kingdom and human society, or at least its digital contemporary. Not only information, but much of our culture is also embedded in this character which is at times human and at times super-human. So, when New York’s Eli Klein Gallery presented works where a caricature-esque Mickey with many eyes is giving everyone the side-eye, or is smiling through a cold sweat, or is all but a skull next to a Christmas tree that looks more like a Hanukkah candle holder, naturally it caught our attention. A closer examination revealed that they were part of the gallery’s latest exhibition featuring the works of Taiwanese artist Lai Chiu-Chen. And closer examination of Lai Chiu-Chen revealed that they were so much more than mere appropriations of cartoon characters.

The Fake Mickey Smiling in a Cold Sweat, Acrylic on canvas, 85 cm x 62 cm, 2013.

Intriguingly titled 99% Unreal, the exhibition at Eli Klein Gallery is Lai’s first solo show in the United States, and features 15 iconic paintings that were all created between 2012 and 2019. Born in 1970, Lai started collecting and picking up scattered items and images at a very young age. Having been raised through Taiwan’s time under martial law, when tensions with Mainland China were at an all time high, when artists of the region often found themselves at odds with the order, the norm and their innate urge to express, Lai naturally grew into an artist who demonstrates the process of piecing together, re-creating and re-developing instead of pulling ideas out of the blue. To Lai, the starting point of a painting is never a blank canvas. As is evident in the works included in the exhibition, Lai Chiu-Chen’s true mastery is the merging and the creating of very unique bonds amongst the elements of pop culture.

One Day More!, Acrylic on canvas, 130 cm x 97 cm, 2016.

The need to co-exist with political turmoil, while out-manoeuvring the fine line between order and expressiveness, forced Lai to become a master of resolving tension. This is exemplified in A Beauty Launching a Smoke Grenade (2012), The Little Sun Spreading Flowers on Hill Top (2016), The Umbrella Man Pretends to be a Volcano (2016), and A Hot dog with Great Compressive Resistance (2016). Lai transforms instinctive bodily experiences of weight and heat into visual tensions. On the other hand, the pressure never seems to be overpowering as the characters in these paintings are often depicted in a calm and neutral stance.

Merry Christmas with Mickey Mouse, Acrylic on canvas, 97 cm x 194 cm, 2012.

When asked about the choice title of the exhibition, Lai explained it with his ‘Chocolate Theory’ – one where cocoa percentage on chocolate bars indicate their sweetness. 100% cocoa would of course be bitter. And 99% additives and 1% cocoa would still taste good. But at this point, it will only be ‘chocolate with chocolate flavour’. 99% Unreal, with paintings created during the explosion of access to information, presents us with a look at the portrayal of mundane pop references co-existing within a setting of social, political and economic turmoil; and asks us, almost impishly, to look for that 1%.

Goodbye, My Dear Friend, Acrylic on canvas, 102 cm x 124 cm, 2016.

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