In 2000, Los Angeles-area painter Sandra Low went to China to get some Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Okay, obviously that wasn’t the primary reason for the trip: She was going to visit what she refers to as “the Mothership,” the place where her family had lived up until three years before she was born. But as an artist obsessed with the phenomenon of globalization, the thing that stuck out most in her mind about her ancestral homeland was the omnipresence of Colonel Sanders. Never mind the absurdity of the fact that a restaurant so quintessentially American is the most popular fast food joint in a country that for decades managed to avoid the encroachment of any Western influences. What really stunned Low was that at one particular KFC, the famous image of the Colonel had been transmogrified to appear more Asian — imagine Mao Tse-Tung if he’d been a Southern chicken wrangler.
That encounter inspired the creation of “8 Days In China,” one of the central pieces in Box Full of Happy, Low’s exhibit currently showing at the Carnegie Art Museum in Oxnard as an addendum to Documenting China, a Smithsonian-sponsored photography series tracing the evolution of Chinese society over the last three decades. “8 Days in China” features a UFO in the shape of Sanders’ iconic bust lined with Communist red stars being lassoed by a cartoon drawing of a Chinese girl. In the corner, a Twinkie dressed as a cowboy uses its E.T.-like hand to phone home, which one can only assume is Texas. Meanwhile, in the background, the faces of what appear to be real Chinese women are stretched and blurred nearly into an afterthought. The painting exemplifies the theme of all Low’s work: consumerism’s debilitating effect on individuals and its influence within entire societies. It is, in essence, about a false kind of happiness; specifically, the kind the United States now exports across the globe.
“It’s part of the reason why the rest of the world has so many problems with this country,” she says over the phone from her home in Rosemead, the so-called “ethnoburb” of the San Gabriel Valley. “We exploit different groups and resources to drive this machine, to make more stuff, and we sell the idea of all this stuff you can buy to make you feel better and more desirable, at the cost of a lot.”
If Low sounds a tad pissed off, that’s because she is. Anger is what motivates her. And despite its title, Box Full of Happy is really an expression of that frustration. It’s an attempt to lift the veil of satisfaction that covers capitalist ideology and expose the soul that’s rotting underneath. Her pictures, while laced with humor, have a grotesque quality to them, a darkness reflective of the ultimately corrupting force she believes lies behind the sparkling, glossy objects that are shoved down our collective throat on a daily basis. But if Low is an angry artist, she does not come across as being a particularly angry person. She laughs often when discussing the satirical nature of her material, and she admits to having an oddly schizophrenic relationship with the culture she lampoons. “The thing that attracts me to globalism, at one point it’s just insidious,” she says. “But at another level, I love this stuff.”
Her ambiguous feelings toward the global homogenization of popular culture are mostly the product of her upbringing as a first generation Chinese-American. Growing up the child of newly naturalized immigrant parents, Low felt split between two worlds: that which she experienced inside her home, and that which she saw outside of it. “As a child,” she writes in her artist statement, “Ronald McDonald danced on my television screen while I shoveled rice into my mouth with pink chopsticks.” Consequently, American pop-culture was for her something “simultaneously familiar and tantalizingly exotic.”
But the older she got, the more disillusioned she became. Studying sociology at UC Berkeley, Low underwent a political awakening. She began to realize that “the melting pot of consumer culture, as an industry built on perpetually deferred promise, is a sham.” At that point, art, which up until then had mostly been a casual hobby, turned into a conduit for her rapidly changing ideals. It also became a way for Low to explore her alienated childhood. “I always felt isolated growing up. Whether or not I could articulate it didn’t happen until later,” she says. “In some ways, I still feel like a 12-year-old kid. Those memories are still fresh in my mind.”
It’s not surprising, then, that four of the pieces in Low’s exhibit have children as the subject matter. However, it’s probably inaccurate to think they are standing in specifically for the artist herself. Instead, they seem to represent adolescence in general. “Kids tend to occupy this place in society where they have certain freedoms to do what they want to do,” Low explains. “There are certain allowances people give them. At a certain age, they’re very un-self-conscious about what they do and say.” In each painting, something is threatening to blow that naiveté to smithereens: In “Harmony,” a young girl squishes her face into a goofy mask as a pair of bombs form bunny ears above her head; in “Joy,” a smiling boy’s missing front teeth have been replaced by a pair of Prozac pills. The message seems mighty cynical: Today’s youth are going to inherit a poisoned earth. But Low says the children are simply devices for her to convey the things that upset her as an adult. “A kid, being outside social constraints and expectations, is free to be who they want to be. [Through them] I can encounter different aspects of the culture that I feel are wrong or interesting or troubling.”
Not all the images in Box Full of Happy are that unsettling. “Thank You For Holding” pokes fun at the trend of outsourcing American jobs to India by depicting various Hindu gods as telephone operators. For her “Chinese Folk Art Series,” Low took her late father’s collection of vintage postcards and drew on top of them to faithfully recreate the story of Snow White — only her version ends with the revived princess disrobing for a pudgy, hairy Prince Charming.
But the piece Low admits to identifying with most is in the children series. “Grace” shows a small girl in the midst of throwing a tantrum. As she does so, her thumb pierces the eye of a severed doll head. It’s unclear exactly what she is raging against — but Low has a pretty good idea.
“The angry Asian girl painting has become a proxy for me,” she says. “It’s like if I were little now and knew what I know today, what horribly devious things would I be doing and thinking about?”
Bow Full of Happy hangs along with Documenting China at the Carnegie Art Museum (424 South C St., Oxnard) through August 20. For more information, call 385-8157.