Timothy Lai

Timothy Lai Hui Ming (b. 1987 in Kota Bharu, Kelantan, Malaysia; lives and works in Providence, RI) received his BA from the University of Texas at San Antonio, TX, and his MFA in Painting from Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, RI. He has had solo shows at Salon Rouge, Sopac Gallery, Mercury Project in San Antonio, TX; and 0-0 LA Gallery in Los Angeles, CA.
September 7, 2021
Tell us about your practice.
My practice mainly consists of drawing and painting. Generally speaking, my work stems from an autobiographical place and is transformed and reimagined into new scenarios—often highlighting issues around interracial love, failure, biracial identities, family dynamics, and existentialism. I use painting as a method to further dissect the complicated circumstances of these experiences. At the risk of sounding corny, there is a deep desire to submit myself to the process in hopes of gaining a new perspective or deeper understanding.
What are the politics of your figures? And how do you contend with them?
Bodies in painting are inherently politicized and bear meaning/baggage that is automatically brought to the table. Especially with the works in the upcoming show, when paintings contain bodies of different colors. This was especially complicated when I had to negotiate the figures that looked like my white partner. There were moments in the past year when I felt incredibly frustrated about the country’s politics and the privilege and violence that stems from whiteness, and I would catch myself taking it out on the painting. But panic always ensues—that is my lover and I care for her deeply —how could I do such a thing? I always end up going back to process these thoughts and actions and try my best to rework the painting in an honest way. I don’t really have a good answer for this beyond that making personal and political paintings demands a lot. Can we be critical of an identity that is inherently part of someone who we love and care for? Probably, but GAWWWD it’s exhausting.
How do the figures find themselves in these precarious positions?
Part of what is exciting is parsing out the complexity in a simple gesture or relationship. I think it’s quite interesting that small actions can bear so much weight and tension—almost loaded in meaning if one just sits with it and considers its possibilities. These actions are sometimes imagined and sometimes appropriated from art historical references. Either way, I often will use my own body to perform and pose the action—documenting it, observing it, and feeling the action. 
I really like to understand the weight of the position —not just the emotional weight but the physical demands of it.
How did you think about symbolism in your works and is there a particular way you assign meaning to them?
I’m reluctant to provide any concrete meaning to symbols—I have this giant fear that doing so will very quickly kill the experience of the painting—for me AND for you! But I tend to approach symbols as an opportunity for more questions and most enjoy them more when there are no definite answers. Similar to the figures, I think that these symbols hold multiple meanings and require work to unpack them. In the example of the painting “Obligation to 
What End?”, the object on the right of the painting is the carcass of a bird with its wings still intact. Historically, wings are seen as a symbol of freedom. But what does this symbol mean if it’s attached to a body that once lived? Is there really agency in the symbol? Is there truly an escape? I’m not sure it’s such an easy answer.
What are some of the things you are reflecting on for your show at Jack Barrett?
Without saying too much, the show Soft Words Make it Easier to Bear, brings up ideas of interdependence, exhaustion, and reflection. Given the context of what we all have experienced in the past year, the works explore moments/spaces between two lovers from different circumstances and how they have to negotiate the conditions of their commitment.
What has been inspiring you lately?
Recently I’ve been rewatching Anthony Bourdain’s show, the Chef Show by Jon Favreau and Roy Choi, and Chef’s Table on Netflix. I really enjoy listening to these individuals talk about their approach to invention, tackling obstacles, and discipline. As far as painters go, I’ve really been diving deep into Nilima Sheikh’s work. Everyone should look her up because she is brilliant!

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