Growing up with strict Asian parents in a small Texas town gives you something to talk about, and artist Sean-McGee Phetsarath talks openly about the experience through his artwork and in this interview. His pieces blend cultural, historical and pop art references with bold colors on wood panels. Phetsarath, who now lives in San Francisco, spoke with PRØHBTD about his upbringing, artistic symbolism and an unfortunate cannabis-smoking side effect.
I have to start by asking about an art show you did last year titled You Play B-Ball? Why You No Play A-Ball? Were you simply trying to have fun with the title, or does it reflect a theme in some way?
The show title comes from the high-expectations Asian father meme. I may have thought a little too hard on a title that wasn’t as clever as I wanted it to be. It does set the theme for the show that I wanted, to show a unique perspective on the Asian-American experience, that most everyone can find connections through diversity. I think everyone, especially artists, experience unattainable expectations from their parents. Being Asian-American gives me a different flavor of misery. With this show, I was looking to have fun with what makes me the person I am.
What is a way in which You Play B-Ball reflects your personal sense of humor?
Life is dumb and doesn’t make sense to me. The only way I can put it all together is to reflect on the choices I’ve made and why I’m in my current position. I seem to latch on to the fucked up parts of life and bring out the humor. Most of my paintings are based on weird shit that happened to me mostly as a kid. There’s one painting that shows my mom regurgitating food into my mouth like a penguin. Just things about me like my name are unfortunate. My first name is McGee, which my dad said he named me after a football player. Well that guy lost in the Super Bowl and was never good after the season I was born so I’m named after a loser. What makes you different isn’t a disability, but owning your uniqueness is what makes you better. You are the most important person in your life and any deficiencies shouldn’t hold you back. I realized that the other day when I was painting and watching The Matrix for like the twelfth time.
Common visual themes I see include butts, The Simpsons and skulls. What do those symbols convey through your artwork?
I often use repeated symbols in my work as sort of “landmarks” or something that I can always go back to when I need to remind myself of certain themes that interest me. Butts happen a lot because, if I can make myself laugh, then there’s probably something special happening in the painting. Humor is also a relatively new thing that comes up in art. All the artists that I’m interested in like to poke fun at themselves and situations. I think everyone is kind of over the tortured artist that sits in coffee shops and quotes theory. The Simpsons are my connection to other artists and peers. Everyone who grew up with The Simpsons are now old and making art. It’s hard not to see reality filtered through pop culture. Also, all of my Asian friends were drawn to the fact that The Simpsons were yellow. The skulls come up a lot because of my love for painting and to satisfy the art world. Skulls are a historical subject that comes up a lot in still life and religious paintings and so I’ve noticed that other painters get excited when they make that connection. It’s like we have a secret we can both reference.
Did anything happen this year, be it in your personal life or the world at large, that comes through in a specific way in the new pieces?
I think moving from Texas to California really influenced my current work. California is really all about diversity and that allowed me to dig deeper and open new possibilities in my work. Before I got here, I would just paint whatever was funny to me. Then I realized the funniest thing ever is my life. I’m no longer afraid to talk about differences anymore because there have been a lot of supportive people who have pushed me to embrace what makes us unique.
What are some ways that your personal style rebels against what you learned in art school?
Everything I do is hopefully the exact opposite of what I learned in art school. It’s definitely not the case with all of my mentors, but it seems what the institution of art schools teaches is based off the success of middle-aged, alcoholic white men. It wouldn’t make sense for me to follow those people. It’s sort of like why I rebelled against my parents’ high expectations. I don’t want to pursue something unattainable and undesirable so my approach to painting takes a less reverent attitude towards art.
When you started college, you planned to go into chemistry. How did you shift into art?
Kind of an uninteresting story but here it goes. I was the typical Asian kid going to college for science mostly because I felt under pressure from the parents to have a respectable major. Science really did interest me and sounded good on paper. Once I got into it, I hated everyone in the program, and no one would talk to me. The only people who would talk to me were the weird art kids that hung out by the dorms smoking cigarettes all day. So I thought I would try out art even though I had absolutely no exposure to it before college. My parents were never really satisfied with my life choices anyways so I had nothing to lose. I was an average artist in undergrad, but I seemed to have felt more ambitions about it than anything else in life. So now I’m in California, things are really picking up for me, and my parents still don’t know that I’m an artist.
You went from a small conservative Texas town to San Francisco. What aspects of your personality remain rooted in Texas, and what aspects are better allowed to grow in California?
I’ll try to answer this without trashing either place too much. San Francisco embraces diversity, and I notice that is what brings people together. In Texas, your differences are a point of distraction. Whether it’s racial, physical, personal or otherwise, being different always seems like a fight. Something about Texas that I miss is that there is a bit more of an attitude there. Maybe it’s from all of the struggles you have to endure, but I try to keep that alive in my art but reformed through my experiences in California. Being born in another country that my parents are from make it difficult to call a place home, but California has allowed me to be more comfortable with myself.
California finally legalized cannabis. Will you be celebrating this?
I don’t smoke myself anymore because it just gives me headaches and the farts for some reason. But I have a ton of good movie recommendations and boxes of chicken nuggets and lunchables in my fridge for my friends who do smoke.
What are some of the movie recommendations?
There's a ton of weird art house movies. I would say Liquid Sky, Possession, Stalker, Tokyo Fist and then some comedies like Cemetery Man, New Kids Nitro and pretty much anything sci-fi. I like movies where everyone loses in the end.
David Jenison (email@example.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.