I always ask myself: What is space to the figures inside the frame? What exactly is the situation I am trying to paint?’

Born 1984, Hong Kong. Lives and works in Hong Kong.

The often solitary figures who populate Firenze Lai’s drawings and paintings recall the sensory experience of moving through the crowded, bustling streets of a manic city where personal space is hard to find. The old man reading the newspaper on a bench in the ‘sitting out place’; the hunched woman wheeling her shopping basket through the market; the school girls arm-in-arm taking up the whole footpath; the guy leaning, smoking, against his metal gate; the throngs on the MTR platform: all these could be among the panoply of characters who populate her canvases. Lai’s scribbly use of line in whimsical drawings such as Shadow (2009) and Untitled (2012) symbolises the scattered thoughts and the internal ‘chatter’ of the people she observes as she moves through the streets and shopping malls of Hong Kong, a city of increasing tension and conflict.

She is interested in the psychological states of city dwellers, the anxieties and tensions inherent in life in a big metropolis. Through the relationships she creates between distorted figures and the ambiguous spaces they inhabit, she explores interconnections and disconnections between people and places, and between individuals and society. Sacred Sunday(2013), for instance, depicts two women looking out of the canvas from a dark background, perhaps formally dressed for church. One wears a bright yellow patterned shirt with an enormous, swooping collar; her companion is more sombrely clothed in indigo. Quick, deft brush-marks of rose madder, yellow ochre, Paynes grey and pale pink block in the features of their stylised faces. Long narrow noses, dark lips and heavily shadowed eyes are startling against the white ground. Their hair, the background and the blocks of strong colour representing their clothing in the foreground are painted with a heavier impasto. The artist was inspired by the familiar scenes in Hong Kong each Sunday, when thousands of domestic workers from Indonesia and the Philippines gather in the parks and shopping malls to sing, dance and picnic together.  Firenze Lai’s figures, often unaware of being watched, seem alienated from their surroundings. The Hong Kong citizens that Lai observes in the street, saves in memory, and brings to life in her paintings and drawings are generally unbeautiful. Caught unawares, they are clumsy, ordinary people, often weary and preoccupied. But, in their particularity, their physical awkwardness represents anyone, anywhere, who is trying to balance the demands of living a complicated life in a complex world.

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