Ulala Imai, Dominique Fung and Emily Ludwig Shaffer : in each of these three young figurative painter’s works, strange characters burst into familiar surroundings. While some of them are direct references to pop culture—in Imai’s paintings mostly—others are more symbolic and archetypal—in Fung and Ludwig Shaffer dreamlike spaces. But the common point between them is the underlying uncertainty on whether they represent inanimate objects or alive characters. It contributes to create a unique atmosphere in their works, which always oscillate between still lives and portraits. In addition to its purely aesthetical dimension, this ambiguity is often used by these artists as a tool to tackle burning issues such as feminism or racism.
1) Ulala Imai
Ulala Imai is a Japanese artist born in 1982. Her paintings are modern still lives where everyday objects and food coexist with figurines and stuffed toys representing famous characters—from well-known movies like Star Wars or E.T. to child cartoons. Hearing-impaired from birth, Imai used visual arts as tool for self-expression, while developing a style of her own. Despite being deeply rooted in modern pop culture, her works are skillfully made. Indeed, the artist has been fascinated from a very young age by Western masters such as Velasquez, Manet or Van Eyck. Funny enough, she compares oil painting—her favorite medium—to spreading butter on bread. As a matter of fact, Imai usually paints very quickly with thin layers of paint, simplifying details while maintaining her trademark delicate, realistic style. Contrasting with her classically-inspired technique, Imai adopts the laughing and innocent look of a child in relation to her subjects. Indeed, according to her new gallery Karma “She works in her home, transforming her children’s toys, quotidian foods, and other household items into mysterious and lifelike subjects”, much as children with imaginary characters.
Apart from Karma, who started working with Ulala Imai earlier this year, the artist is represented by Nonaka Hill in Los Angeles. Both galleries exhibited her works in major art fairs—from Nada in Miami to the Independent Art Fair in New York.
2) Dominique Fung
Dominique Fung is a Chinese-Canadian painter born in 1987 and currently based in New York. She is known for her dreamlike paintings where everyday objects from Asian cultures are intertwined with strange female characters.
Fung was classically trained in art school were she drew inspiration from Western movements such as Surrealism, 17th century Dutch still lives, classical and romantic paintings. Despite their beautifully crafted and softly textured aspect—which draws from her many influences—her paintings reveal a concealed violence on closer examination. When looking at the details, one discovers contending objects, impaled fruit and dismembered limbs… The artist’s ambiguous objects and characters are a way for her to criticize the fetishisation of Asian culture and women. Indeed, Fung denounces the stereotypes about Asian women in European art. According to her, they were first introduced by the Orientalist movement in the 19th century. Since then, "yellow" women—as qualified by theorist Anne Anlin Cheng—are regularly sexualized and rendered synthetic and ornamental. However, In contrast to orientalism, the characters in her paintings, despite their sculptural aspect, have a real personality as they are shown protesting, laughing or smoking for instance.
Dominique Fung is represented by Jeffrey Deitch and the Californian gallery Nicodim. The latter organized her first solo fair booth in China at ART021 in Shanghai. Her work is included in important collections such as the Institute of Contemporary Art in Miami.
3) Emily Ludwig Shaffer
Emily Ludwig Shaffer is an American artist born in 1988 who currently lives and works in New York. She is famous for her meticulous painting technique, which make her works look like computer art despite being hand-made. The only elements in her work that have a humane consonance are statues of seemingly frozen women in weird positions. Shaffer often represents intertwined geometric spaces through architectural structures, gardens, interior scenes and simplified horizon lines. These spaces often coexist in a paradoxical way—day and night, interior and exterior at the same time for instance—which gives her paintings a surrealistic dimension inspired by the work of Dali—among others. This atmosphere of strangeness is reinforced by the artist's technique, perfectly mastered to the point where brushstrokes are almost invisible. As a consequence, the objects on the canvas seem to be represented without relief and made with the same material.
Unlike Fung’s work, the presence of ambiguous female characters in Shaffer’s paintings are a way for her to pay “tribute to the spaces that women build and create". Indeed, she sees these figures as “monument proposals to female companionship”, which is a way to manifest women empowerment in her work.
Emily Ludwig Schaffer is currently represented by the Parisian gallery Pact as well as Peres Project. The prestigious gallery will organize the artist’s first solo show in its premises in November 2022.