During the preview for his debut solo show at Latitude Gallery, Charlie Mai recounts that once, during a dinner party, someone told him they wanted to fuck his chairs. They are irresistible. Mai is known for his chair design — foam exteriors, turned inside-out, bound with electrical rope, giving BDSM — and his street-wear-clad folk Chinese figurines (which were shown in New York Fashion Week), which explore a clashing of wealth and culture. “A fissure that identity politics ignores,” says Mai. The painted ceramic figurines began as critique but have since evolved to question the prerequisites of inclusion and the tokenization of identity within artistic communities. Displayed by the entrance, they stand on shelves that resemble his chair works; glass presses into the bound foam as it would flesh.
Mai’s ambitious, first-ever solo exhibition, A Little Good for a Long Time, demonstrates an augmentation of his previous works alongside a new, site-specific performance installation. It is fitting that this work is shown at Latitude Gallery: a small, Chinese-owned space on Bayard Street in Chinatown. Mai says it only makes sense here, a context which is distinctly Chinese, in New York City.
At the gallery’s center is a smaller room, four walls of Venetian blinds. The interior of each wall depicts eight galloping horses (a traditional Feng Shui motif “bā jùn tú (八骏图)” or “eight steeds” meant to bring wealth to one’s home or workplace) and dangle from wood painted with the clouds of a campy heaven.. Much of Mai’s work plays upon the familiar, confuses memory, becomes unplaceable. Partially hidden behind the blinds there stands a performer in a suit that lands somewhere between hair and gilly. It reminds the audience of something: movies from childhood, war; the cultural monikers become more present in their lack of specificity and call the viewers’ attention inward. They ask what those assumptions really are, where we can place them within ourselves.
From the outside one can only see the figure by peeking, looking down at him, the nature of venetian blinds. This feels uncomfortable, like looking into a different room at a motel, pointedly American, pointedly signaling a class with wealth left to reach for. One must look at the work from every angle to see that the horses are only chasing themselves, yet the performer can only ever see the horses as an ouroboros. The reward for the pursuit of wealth is only the pursuit of wealth, but this work is not a symbol. The pursuit of wealth is only one of many ideas that circle each other in this permeable merry-go-round. We see vulnerability in hiding, the figure enclosed in a Sisyphean task. The metaphorical assemblage functions in tandem with the multifaceted way American society siphons Asian Americans into a role of “model minorities.” When the performer rotates the blinds, the horses become graffiti, then ghosts, then horses again, with eyes lashed in the middle. Half of the blinds are upside-down, playing with us. Mai says that if a collector bought the piece, it should be displayed this way, fragmenting and obscuring the subject's truth by turning it inside-out; it would only be right. This life is private.