By Erin Fae
A series of paintings of aging men and a nubile young woman. Think you know where this is going? Think again.
Artist Justine Lai paints herself having erotic contact with every President of the United States, progressing through these men in chronological order. She’s titled this ongoing work, “Join or Die.” Lai, born and raised in Sacramento, and now based in San Francisco, began this series of paintings in 2006. Her website shows her most recent encounter: Lai spread over Ulysses S. Grant’s knee, about to receive a very stern spanking.
These paintings are mostly flesh, beautifully executed with oil on canvas. Each painting is 18” x 24” and employs the same color palette. The brush strokes are gestural, but there is no mistaking the men in this series of work. Some people might write this work off as controversial for controversy’s sake or art for shock value, but it goes much deeper than that.
These images, while explicit, are not vulgar. Even in the most intense scene, there seems to be an intimacy and a vulnerability. While the subjects are familiar, these men are not simply celebrity. The Presidency is a role laid heavy with myths and personae carefully constructed through media, PR and history books. A President’s entire image has been sculpted to make him seem impenetrable, invulnerable, and untouchable. Lai’s work examines this and turns the Presidents into something else: humans.
What’s more, this series is about power. These are men that have always been viewed as powerful. That is part of the Presidency myth. However, the power here isn’t just about what Presidents posses in their working lives. It’s the power the artist seizes by creating these works and painting herself into imagined encounters. Lai also plays with power through the various sexual scenarios—how people give and take power in sex and intimacy, and the ways a person surrenders.
In her artist statement, Lai writes, “[In “Join or Die,”] I attempt to locate something intimate and mortal. I use this intimacy to subvert authority, but it demands that I make myself vulnerable along with the Presidents…. This, I feel, is the most humanizing act I can do.”
We all live with the Presidents. Open your bag or reach into your pocket. You can probably find a little bit of Lincoln to rub between your fingers. These men have become icons and symbols. More than a reality of these men’s lives, we live and experience the myths of these men. Lai uses art to explore their private sphere. She takes the Presidents and brings them into her own fantasy and reality.