Femininity, Violence, and Asian-American Identity—“Kelly Lu’s WAR!”

Jul 8, 2016 8:12PM

In Kelly Lu’s vivid new work, delicate young women carry guns and wear gas masks, their pale flesh covered in tattoos, their expressions serene. These “angry Asian girls,” as Lu calls them, are stand-ins for the artist herself.

Lu, who is of Vietnamese descent, grew up in the American South. In high school, she was a minority—“the token Asian girl,” she says, who struggled to fit in. She felt pressure to suppress any trace of her cultural background; even her mother encouraged her to act and look more “American.” That early identity crisis sparked a quiet rage that smoldered for years. Finally, it reached a breaking point, one that exploded across the paper in “Kelly Lu’s WAR!

The exhibition, at The Southern in Charleston, South Carolina, featured a range of works rendered in ink, marker, and acrylic. Looking at the details—the precise figuration, the stylized forms, the burning red sun—it comes as no surprise that Lu was influenced by postwar Japanese art. But these works convey an intensity of emotion that’s very much at odds with the peaceful scenes and docile feminine figures often portrayed in traditional Eastern ink drawings and paintings.

Lu is angry; now, years of being ashamed of her own identity, it’s an emotion she openly embraces. These works are rich with violence: drowning girls, skulls and satanic imagery, and guns galore. The women depicted—some struggling, some enjoying it—are versions of the artist herself and, moreover, representatives of a generation.

Yet their expressions are almost always still. “I give them calm faces,” the artist said, “because I feel like our generation is kind of jaded. It’s hard to shock us or surprise us because we see everything on the internet, social media, TV.”

Viewed together, these pieces form a nightmarish montage that mixes elegant Eastern ink works with the kittenish glamour of the Asian pin-up girl and the acidity of a political cartoon. Yet the collection offers more than just one woman’s expression of identity: “Kelly Lu’s WAR!” is an intriguing meditation on our modern age, the classic stereotypes of East and West, and a generation of women navigating two worlds.

—Bridget Gleeson

Kelly Lu’s WAR!” was on view at The Southern, Charleston, South Carolina, May 28–Jun. 26, 2016.

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