The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) presents The Photographs of Reagan Louie: Sex Work in Asia, an exhibition of the artist’s large-scale color photographs representing his candid and complex study of the Asian sex industry. On view at SFMOMA from September 4 through December 7, 2003, the exhibition is organized by Sandra S. Phillips, the Museum’s senior curator of photography, in close collaboration with the artist. According to Phillips, “The exhibition marks a strong departure from some of Reagan Louie’s more introspective earlier work. It is important for SFMOMA to present these marvelous and vivid photographs.”
Reagan Louie, a Chinese American photographer living in the Bay Area, spent six years exploring the Asian sex trade. Traveling throughout Asia, Louie visited nearly a dozen countries, photographing the day-to-day lives of hundreds of women, who—either by choice or necessity—prostitute themselves. Ranging from Thai sex emporiums and Japanese image clubs to Chinese karaoke nightclubs and Taiwanese betel nut stands, his pictures explore this thriving industry and the fantasies it nourishes. His photographic journey into this underground business depicts a world where the line between myth and reality is often deliberately blurred. Louie records the often gaudy, functional architecture on the periphery of the sex trade, but focuses his attention primarily on the women who inhabit this world. Though Louie examines the stereotypes of Asian female sexuality that give these places their particular character, he is not interested in sociological study. He sees and shows these women as individuals, worthy of thoughtful yet frank portraits, startling and human, without irony, judgment or idealization. And while this series of photographs features female sex workers, ultimately Louie’s larger subject is an exploration of identity issues that cross the lines of gender, geography and ethnicity.
The Photographs of Reagan Louie: Sex Work in Asia features approximately 70 photographs ranging in size from 8 by 10 inches to 48 by 60 inches; one gallery will consist of “maps” of ephemera and small prints grouped according to the geographic location in which the picture was taken. In addition, approximately 50 artworks selected by Reagan Louie from both the Museum’s permanent collection and local private collections will be on view. These images—by artists as diverse as Bellocq, Brassaï, de Kooning, Friedlander, Goldin, Man Ray, Morimura, Picasso, Sherman, Stieglitz and Winogrand—provide insight into influences upon the artist, as well as art-historical context for explorations of both gender identity and the notion of the artistic muse.
In addition to being an artist, Reagan Louie is a professor in the photography department at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he has taught since 1976. He received a B.A. from UCLA and an M.F.A. from Yale University. His work can be found in the collections of several major museums in the United States, including SFMOMA; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Louie’s 1991 exhibition and book Toward a Truer Life: Photographs of China 1980–1990, based on a photographic exploration of his ancestral homeland, received wide critical acclaim.
The Photographs of Reagan Louie: Sex Work in Asia is accompanied by a fully illustrated book by the artist entitled Orientalia: Sex in Asia.This volume features more than 100 of Louie’s color photographs and a first-person narrative of his journeys, revealing the context in which these photographs were made and providing further insight into aspects of Asian sexuality. The book includes an introductory essay by Asian American writer Tracy Quan, (Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl: A Nancy Chan Novel), a former sex worker who writes and speaks about issues that affect the sex industry. Published by powerHouse Books, Orientalia: Sex in Asia is available for $35 at the SFMOMA MuseumStore or by phone at 415.357.4035.
SFMOMA’s Education Department will present an Artist Talk with Reagan Louie on Thursday, September 18 at 7 p.m. Tickets to this event, for $12 general and $8 SFMOMA members/students/seniors, are available at the Museum (with no surcharge) or through www.ticketweb.com. Additional program information is available on the Museum’s Web site at www.sfmoma.org.