Shelley De Soto on Tidawhitney Lek

By Shelley De SotoJanuary 30, 2024

Shelley De Soto on Tidawhitney Lek

1:1 invites writers to reflect on a single work of art with focus, care, and imagination to expand how we view, receive, and write about art. 1:1 is organized and edited by Annie Buckley.

At first glance, Local Market (2023) depicts a totally ordinary slice of life in Southern California—a glimpse through a convenience store’s automatic sliding door reveals two young women with a child in tow checking out at the register. Their silky batik sarongs, perfectly mixed and matched with fast-fashion separates, are delightfully eye-catching, worthy of a mental snapshot. With a longer look, though, you can tell that something more haunting is afoot. Viewing Tidawhitney Lek’s life-size, multipanel painting is akin to witnessing a visitation.

One of the girls, mesmerizing in jewel tones and wearing a dour expression, hands a California ID to a checker concealed behind glass. Her outstretched arm meets the clutch of the obscured figure behind the counter. This mystery character bears one of Lek’s signature tokens: a sometimes cartoonish, usually necrotic hand with long, glittery coffin-tipped nails. Spotting the telltale hands is like having a brush with derealization. Suddenly, it becomes evident that what had been an innocuous reflection in the window isn’t. This is not Lek’s hometown of Long Beach, nor is the shadowy form a gangly-armed clerk; the reflection flashes on her family’s native Cambodia and soldiers in combat gear, a latent intergenerational memory quietly coloring the fabric of Lek’s everyday world.

Moving through the intricacies of the image, it’s tricky to keep a linear sense of time. New stories are layered beneath old ones: plot points are mapped atop one another; people and places flatten into merged narratives. Exquisitely rendered motifs in the traditional textiles keep some semblance of order, and the delicate filigree on the fabric is so carefully painted that it’s almost comforting. There is an inadvertent ornamentation built into the makeup of the city too. Stickers, flyers, labels, placards all attempt to fix us in time and place, albeit more chaotically. With the kinetic energy sparked by placing pattern on pattern, Lek activates a wormhole and lets us flit back and forth in her personal space-time.

Having a foothold in multiple places at once—California and Cambodia, now and then—Lek’s facility for perpetual teleportation opens new terrain, a sort of psychic midland made up of not necessarily firsthand moments. It’s a site where memories, both novel and inherited, are replayed over and over, becoming more real (and more unreal) with each iteration. Lek’s version of lived experience is not unlike the disembodied hand, a phantom limb equally menacing and cheeky.

Ultimately, Local Market is an entryway to the richly varied topography of Lek’s interdimensional histories. It connects to the past and retells important stories but leaves plenty of room for new paths to the future. It’s heavy, yet humorous and hopeful, a testament to the power of remembrance and a bittersweet reminder of the all-too-familiar emotional inertia that can make home—wherever and whenever that may be—feel like home.


Featured image: Installation view at Long Beach Museum of Art. Tidawhitney Lek, Local Market, 2023, Acrylic, glitter, and oil on canvas, 72 x 144 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Sow & Tailor, Los Angeles.

LARB Contributor

Shelley De Soto is an art dealer and a consultant based in Los Angeles. Her eponymous gallery has produced numerous exhibitions over its 20-year history with a focus on making accessible limited editions.


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