Carrot Stick, 2002. Courtesy Deitch Projects, New York.
For Su-en Wong, culture has always been one of those “‘What are you rebelling against?’ ‘Whaddya got?’” kind of things. “I grew up with a very strict and structured social and education model in Singapore,” she tells us, “and I tried whenever I could and however I could to rebel against it.” But in the land of no gum chewing, it isn’t particularly easy to be a badass, as Su-en found out: “I didn’t really succeed, mainly due to the power of cultural mores and parental supervision, but it was a good fight!” Once she moved to the US at the age of sixteen, it was a little harder to find conformity to scoff at, but there was always sexual exploitation. “From The World of Suzie Wong to The Joy Luck Club to Return to Paradise, the depiction—and thus social construction—of Asian women in the Western media has been of subservient, subordinate, puppy-eyed China dolls eager to please. It’s gross.” Her paintings reflect the cliché view of Asian women that she hates, but take the critique to a joyous, utopian, and sexy place instead of a bummer one. In Wong’s artworks, cookie-cutter women, most looking like the artist herself, occupy a nonspace where they swing from strip club poles, crouch naked in tiaras, and sit on the toilet reading Artforum. Archetypal images of cultural domesticity (stuff like cheerleaders, synchronized swimmers, and wedding-cake figurines) get humorous and poignant—but also aggressive—recastings in Wong’s art. At least part of the urge in Su-en’s work comes from nostalgia for the kind of youth she would have liked to have lived. “I can only really fantasize about a frivolous and carefree existence, now long gone from my reality. In art, though, I can reclaim it. In art, we can be whatever we want!” JAN PEOPLES