Academy for the Sensitive Arts

Theta, NYC
September 9 - October 22, 2022


Press: Art Viewer, Hyperallergic
 

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Press release:

Theta is pleased to welcome you back to school with Spencer Lai’s first solo exhibition at the gallery. Lai’s creative practice explores the expressions and utilities of design at the intersection of art, fashion, pedagogy, and political rhetoric. Academy for the Sensitive Arts is a culmination of Lai’s furtive mining of the culture wars and conventions of modernism, incorporating a mix of formal and ideological references into three new bodies of work. Together they explore the material and stylized applications of imagery and text that blur the line between tools for education and fetishization.

The synthesis of educational and aesthetic reform throughout the modern era were fundamental to the cultural project of building a new man. Within the heaps of a progress-oriented canon, Lai unearths and examines the movements and manifestos driven by design and intertwined with ideologies of “the greater good”. The proximity of dogma to propaganda or populism to fascism is the line of intrigue embedded in enigmatic pictures of our forward-looking past. Plucking and reconstructing, redefining the rules seems a natural exercise to Lai, whose inspired present feels something like a skeuomorphic Steiner schoolhouse in a Bauhaus by Superflat x Nintendo Wii universe.

The ideal environs of childhood are preeminently soft. Edges are round, surfaces are padded; nothing can hurt you. Lai has developed a signature form of “painting” over the last five years collaging hand-cut felt––a material tailored to the gentle arts and crafts of youthful play––into layered monochromes resembling bas-reliefs wherein figure and ground are quite literally cut from the same cloth. For AFTSA, the artist presents a new suite of oversized slabs of trapezoidal felt booming with words like “crushing spit,” “reincarnation,” and “thoughtless, rendered in flesh.” The compositions are pictographic montages of mechanical components, factory lines, and fashion maquettes, punctuated with universal symbol-graphics like stars or hearts. Faces are indistinguishable, reduced to Isotypes not unlike those created by the Constructivist subgroup called the Cologne Progressives, whose flat pictorial language articulated labor solidarity and diagrammed class struggle in radical publications during the Interwar years. Isotypes depicted figures as reductively as the operations of their labor, as de-individualized as capitalism made them. Lai, a century later, troubles the delineation between form, feeling and structure in a softened echo of educational initiatives for the post-woke proletariat.

Archetypes continue to take shape along the gallery walls in bold geometric abstractions rendered in powder-coated steel. Lai’s concerns with surface, youth aesthetics, and the grotesque charm of kitsch converge in ovoid homages to problematic fave Lucio Fontana’s 1963-4 La Fine Di Dio (The End of God) series. Lai expands upon Fontana’s invented notion of Spatialism with delicate insertions of color-blocked rectangles within each inorganic egg. Inset foam core, felt, and rubberized rectangles throw plastic emotions of color into each niche, organized in a manner of De Stijl-ish simplicity. Within several, sporadically embellished mini compositions present tactile paintings within the paintings, stitched in beads and sequins. This formula advances to a set of shimmery snowfakes, rounded, of course, at the tips of each branch. As the artist reinterprets Fontana’s decorative/destructive manifesto on contemporary symbols of fragility, the object lesson of (im)maturity is called into question.

Lai’s construction of the educational complex takes on corporal form with a set of sculptures reminiscent of Japanese kokeshi dolls, traditionally composed of bipartite (round head, tube body) painted wood. Lai’s dolls, rendered in clear resin and blank-faced like the subjects of their felts, present another site for projection in the artist’s experimental schema for individuation of the masses. They stand at attention in clusters on children’s IKEA tables. Several sport vintage wigs of bygone styles, or are adorned with butterflies or craft feathers. Bulbous, clown-like noses protrude from the wigs, recalling the absurd fetishism of Hans Bellmer’s La Poupée, or the delightfully glossy forms of anthropomorphic Alessi domestic products. Blending militant uniformity with campy expression, Lai injects design-driven obsession and a healthy dose of depraved humor into the delicate project of modeling identity.

Theta_Lai_00.jpg

Installation view

form 015 (Gwen).jpg

form 015 (Gwen)
Resin, spray paint, vintage doll’s wig

22.5 x 8.5 x 8.5 cm (8.85 x 3.34 x 3.34 in)

form 016 (Gloria).jpg

form 016 (Sophia II)
Resin, spray paint, vintage doll’s wig, antique trim, marabou trim, fabric trim

37 x 11 x 11 cm (14.56 X 4.33 x 4.33 in)

Theta_Lai_25.jpg

Installation view

Theta_Lai_42.jpg

Installation view

form001(Sophia I).jpg

form 001 (Sophia I)
Resin, spray paint, vintage doll’s wig, velvet trim

37 x 11 x 11 cm (14.56 X 4.33 x 4.33 in)

form 003 (Julia).jpg

form 002 (Julia)
Resin, spray paint, vintage doll’s wig, thread, yarn, string, tinsel elastic, beads

30 x 11 x 11 (11.81 x 8.85 x 8.85 in)

form 002 (Heidi.jpg

form 003 (Heidi)
Resin, spray paint, vintage doll’s wig, butterfly

22.5 x 8.5 x 8.5 cm (8.85 x 3.34 x 3.34 in)

Theta_Lai_37.jpg

Installation view

Theta_Lai_24.jpg

form: snowflake I, 2022

Powder coated steel, foam core, acrylic spray paint, rubberised spray paint, synthetic felt, beads

49 x 49 cm (19.7 x 19.7 in)

Theta_Lai_39.jpg

Installation view

Installation view

Theta_Lai_05.jpg

form: egg (watermelon), 2022

Powder coated steel, foam core, acrylic spray paint, rubberised spray paint, synthetic felt, beads, sequins

68.5 x 47 cm (27 x 18.5 in)

Theta_Lai_06.jpg
Theta_Lai_07.jpg
Theta_Lai_08.jpg

form: egg (army green), 2022

Powder coated steel, foam core, acrylic spray paint, rubberised spray paint, synthetic felt, beads, sequins

68.5 x 47 cm (27 x 18.5 in)

Theta_Lai_09.jpg
Theta_Lai_10.jpg
Theta_Lai_38.jpg

Installation view

Theta_Lai_01.jpg

crushing, spit, 2022
Synthetic felt, adhesive

140 x 69.5 cm (55.11 x 27.36 in)

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Installation view

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Installation view

form 004 (Papilio Ulysses).jpg

form 004 (null)
Resin, spray paint, feathers, papilio ulysses

22.5 x 8.5 x 8.5 cm (8.85 x 3.34 x 3.34 in)

form 005 (Julienn).jpg

form 005 (Julienn)
Resin, spray paint, vintage doll’s wig

37 x 11 x 11 cm (14.56 X 4.33 x 4.33 in)

form 006 (null).jpg

form 006 (null)
Resin, spray paint

22.5 x 8.5 x 8.5 cm (8.85 x 3.34 x 3.34 in)

form 007 (Princess I).jpg

form 006 (princess I)
Resin, spray paint, vintage doll's wig, polyester satin, beads, plastic

22.5 x 8.5 x 8.5 cm (8.85 x 3.34 x 3.34 in)

Theta_Lai_41.jpg

Installation view

Theta_Lai_20.jpg

form: egg (rust), 2022

Powder coated steel, foam core, acrylic spray paint, rubberised spray paint, synthetic felt, beads, sequins

68.5 x 47 cm (27 x 18.5 in)

Theta_Lai_21.jpg
Theta_Lai_22.jpg
Theta_Lai_03.jpg

reincarnation, 2022
Synthetic felt, adhesive
156 x 72 cm (61.4 x 28.3 in)

Theta_Lai_40.jpg

Installation view

Theta_Lai_17.jpg

form: egg (grass green), 2022

Powder coated steel, foam core, acrylic spray paint, rubberised spray paint, synthetic felt, beads

68.5 x 47 cm (27 x 18.5 in)

Theta_Lai_18.jpg
Theta_Lai_19.jpg
Theta_Lai_14.jpg

form: egg (deep violet), 2022

Powder coated steel, foam core, acrylic spray paint, rubberised spray paint, synthetic felt, beads, sequins

68.5 x 47 cm (27 x 18.5 in)

Theta_Lai_15.jpg
Theta_Lai_16.jpg
Theta_Lai_29.jpg

Installation view

Theta_Lai_44.jpg

Installation view

form 008 (Zobe.jpg

form 008 (Zobe)
Resin, spray paint, vintage doll’s wig

22.5 x 8.5 x 8.5 cm (8.85 x 3.34 x 3.34 in)

form 006 (null).jpg

form 006 (null)
Resin, spray paint

22.5 x 8.5 x 8.5 cm (8.85 x 3.34 x 3.34 in)

form 009 (Princess II).jpg

form 010 (Princess II)
Resin, spray paint, vintage beaded trim, synthetic fabric trim, butterfly

50 x 14.5 x 14.5 cm (19.68 x 5.70 x 5.70 in)

form 011 (Joni).jpg

form 011 (Joni)
Resin, spray paint, vintage doll's wig

37 x 11 x 11 cm (14. 56 X 4.33 x 4.33 in)

Theta_Lai_04.jpg

delicate (we exist to be exploded), 2022
Synthetic felt, adhesive
147 x 96 cm (57.9 x 37.8 in)

Theta_Lai_31.jpg

Installation view

Theta_Lai_02.jpg

thoughtless, rendered in flesh, 2022
Synthetic felt, adhesive
144 x 64.5 cm (57 x 24.4 in)

Theta_Lai_45.jpg

Installation view

form 012 (Senji).jpg

form 012 (Senji)
Resin, spray paint, vintage doll’s wig, crochet sampler

22.5 x 8.5 x 8.5 cm (8.85 x 3.34 x 3.34 in)

form 013 (null).jpg

form 013 (null)
Resin, spray paint

30 x 11 x 11 (11.81 x 8.85 x 8.85 in)

form014(Sophia II).jpg

form 014 (Sophia II)
Resin, spray paint, vintage doll’s wig, suede fringing, vintage crystal trim

37 x 11 x 11 cm (14. 56 X 4.33 x 4.33 in)

Theta_Lai_11.jpg

form: egg (yellow), 2022

Powder coated steel, foam core, acrylic spray paint, rubberised spray paint, synthetic felt, beads, feather

68.5 x 47 cm (27 x 18.5 in)

Theta_Lai_12.jpg
Theta_Lai_13.jpg
Theta_Lai_23.jpg

form: snowflake II, 2022

Powder coated steel, foam core, acrylic spray paint, rubberised spray paint, synthetic felt, beads

49 x 49 cm (19.7 x 19.7 in)

Documentation courtesy of Theta