Lauren Hana Chai contrasts Korean upbringing with modern American life

The Honolulu Museum of Art (HoMA) will burst with color and transcultural symbolism when “Lauren Hana Chai: The Five Senses,” goes on view August 10, 2023-January 14, 2024. The exhibition presents deeply personal work by O‘ahu-based artist Lauren Hana Chai (b. 1991). The painter and ceramicist is known for contrasting her traditional Korean upbringing with modern American life.

Centered on an overarching theme of healing, “The Five Senses” touches on concepts of grief, trauma and resilience in an ever-evolving world. The exhibition transcends a visual experience with works that activate other senses. Vibrant paintings arranged around a multi-media installation in the middle of the gallery invite participants to touch, smell, hear, taste and see.

“I first encountered Lauren’s work in Honolulu and was immediately drawn to it,” HoMA Director and CEO Halona Norton-Westbrook, who curated the exhibition, said. “Her paintings are an invitation into another world and flow with an energy that is both welcoming and unapologetic, inviting reflection on the intersection between the multitude of traditions that shape individual identity and perception.”

“Lauren Hana Chai: The Five Senses,” continues the Museum’s ongoing commitment to presenting work by contemporary Hawai‘i artists.”

Lauren Hana Chai credits her family as a source of inspiration, especially her relationship with her mother, who went missing when the artist was 11 years old. The exhibition includes three works from Chai’s six-painting series “Last Known Locations,” a collection of detailed oil paintings following the possible trail of Chai’s mother, Mira, before her disappearance.

Imagery inspired by Mira is infused into the works, each focused on a specific place that Chai identified as a potential last known location of her mother. Paintings highlighted in “The Five Senses” include scenes of Las Vegas, South Korea and Los Angeles.

“I have been negotiating the ongoing trauma of that loss ever since,” said Chai. “As I navigated adolescence and then adulthood through the lens of that experience, I have been on a parallel journey exploring my Korean American heritage and the boundaries of personal mythologies of self, family, community and history. Like many who come from a cross-cultural background, I often feel that I live in an in-between world. I am both a Korean and an American, but never fully one or the other.”

Chai grew up in Honolulu and was the first of her family to be born in the United States. Raised by her grandparents who are from South Korea, she grew up with dual cultures, experiencing a traditional Korean lifestyle at home while simultaneously being immersed in the western world. Chai’s work evokes complex themes of identity and belonging and investigates universal questions of morality, relationships and sexuality.

She finds inspiration from a broad range of artistic styles and ideas, from traditional Korean paintings and classical works of the European Renaissance to the abstract Korean concept of “han” that speaks to a collective sense of sadness, anger and helplessness generated through years of oppression. Striving to turn victimhood into power, the artist’s style of figurative painting reveals a sense of rebellion and strength as she visualizes the struggle for balance between East and West, the opposition between tradition and modernity and the harmony between chaos and order.

Her current series, “Souls in Motion,” juxtaposes traditional elements such as Korean folk art and Buddhist temple architecture with reflections on modern society and contemporary identity.

“I really wanted to step back and world build, and take everything – whether it’s about my identity, Korean American culture, sex and death – and find the sense of universality and sacredness within those personal themes,” Chai said of her recent work in an interview with Artrepreneur. “I’ve painted a lot about dark themes, especially straight out of school. Right now, I’m interested in finding healing through love, the progression in life through love, how love moves us all. It’s always about the balance in my life.” 

About Lauren Hana Chai

Lauren Hana Chai was born and raised in Honolulu. She moved to San Francisco in 2010 to attend the Academy of Art University and graduated in 2015 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting.

In 2018, she completed a residency at Impact Hub Honolulu, and she has been featured in NBC News, KBS World Radio, Houston NPR and the Honolulu Star Advertiser.

She currently lives and works in Honolulu.

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