Artist paints herself having sex with each president of the USA

Artist Justine Lai's new project is a set of oil paintings of her having sex with every president of the USA, in order.
In Join Or Die, I paint myself having sex with the Presidents of the United States in chronological order. I am interested in humanizing and demythologizing the Presidents by addressing their public legacies and private lives. The presidency itself is a seemingly immortal and impenetrable institution; by inserting myself in its timeline, I attempt to locate something intimate and mortal. I use this intimacy to subvert authority, but it demands that I make myself vulnerable along with the Presidents. A power lies in rendering these patriarchal figures the possible object of shame, ridicule and desire, but it is a power that is constantly negotiated.

I approach the spectacle of sex and politics with a certain playfulness. It would be easy to let the images slide into territory that's strictly pornographic–the lurid and hardcore, the predictably "controversial." One could also imagine a series preoccupied with wearing its "Fuck the Man" symbolism on its sleeve. But I wish to move beyond these things and make something playful and tender and maybe a little ambiguous, but exuberantly so. This, I feel, is the most humanizing act I can do.

NOTES ON JOIN OR DIE (Thanks, Frank W!)


  1. just a bit of a warning – the “works” link on the artist’s website…. a bit NSFW, unless your workplace is presidential screw paintings friendly.

  2. These are actually quite good. I plan to avoid her Cleveland and Taft paintings, however.

  3. @1, I would have thought the “Artist paints herself having sex” title would have been enough of a NSFW warning for most people that clicking on the link might just result in paintings of people having sex appearing on your screen.

  4. note to self, don’t watch sexual imaginery at work, now im randy, it’s before nine and there is no women at my workplace….men are not that good looking either…..

  5. I’m just imagining that second-last one. Yeugh! You just know GWB’d be shit in bed. Although he’d probably do whatever you told him to. But then he’d spend all your money on having the neighbours killed.

  6. Very cool series, but Millard Fillmore is really creeping me out. (And to a lesser extent John Tyler and U.S. Grant)

    However Van Buren (pictured above), is adorable. ^^


    classic *whipes tear from eye.*
    sometimes artists are just stupid.

  8. Does the painting of 43 show him leaving a big Cleveland Steamer on Lai’s chest?

    He rogered us all real good.

    Cap’n S

  9. Matt D – yeah you would have thought so, but I was expecting it to be more discrete… no idea why, but yes – I should have expected it!!!!!

  10. What I wonder is why she decided to have Grant spank her- I would have figured she’d save that for Teddy Roosevelt, or at least Andrew Jackson (although I’m betting that “Old Hickory” was actually a pretty hardcore bottom).

  11. I’m feeling so moved by the aesthetic and metaphorical beauty of these, especially after reading her statement.

    I’m noting that some of the positions speak more of an intimate embrace (“power with” another, a union) and others (spanking, blowjob) speak more of a “power over and submission” model of relating.

  12. I wonder about the artist’s statement. Is this really why she made the paintings–or did she just want to do the series and felt the need to have some conceptual underpinning to express. Honestly I think the work would be more interesting without the tidy explanation.

  13. @23 ETHAN

    I feel that she is a true artist and I, speaking as a professional artist, recognize a profound integrity and dignity to both the work and the statement.

    My judgement and my gut tell me that she did not just tack this on to be “controversial” which, she clearly recognizes, can be as degrading as it is useful. She openly owns the possibility of controversy and desires to move beyond it.

  14. This is rather brilliant. Instant fame/notoriety, and it involved neither violence nor bad singing.

  15. #5 KAIZA : I’m feeling sad and frustrated. Your comment really smacks of misunderstanding and even racism to me.

    This artist, who clearly thought this out and worked very hard to produce these, has put herself in a vulnerable position by using this kind of imagery to make a statement her audience.

    I’d sleep more soundly knowing that this kind of dignity does not get mis-recognized and connected with inconsideration and indignity.

  16. This is pretty silly.

    Seems yet another pretentious artist burying perversity in contrived imagery and circuitous academic language to make a point that needs not be made. She hasn’t fooled me through her crafty mention of the “predictably ‘controversial'”; in fact, it’s all I’ve found in this project.

    Frankly, this kind of frivolity is starting to bore me.


    I so disagree with you. I find this stuff is discreet, powerful, apt, and it has a genuine depth to it.

    I find it weird that you place yourself in a potential victim role as one who is in danger of potentially being deceived. That says to me you allow her some power as an artist and that you may feel real uncomfortable with that.

  18. @25 Sean Blueart

    I didn’t say she isn’t an artist… In fact, I think I’m taking her quite seriously as an artist.

    I see from your earlier comment that the artist’s statement made a big impression on you. While I certainly don’t want to take that away from you, I do think that the semi-obligatory artist’s statement more often takes away from a work rather than adds to it.

    It’s of course debatable whether that’s the case for this series of paintings. But personally I found the statement made the work safe for me. I would have preferred the work to be left a little more open-ended in terms of the artist’s intention.

  19. #30 –

    “Familiarize yourself with the chains of bondage and you prepare your own limbs to wear them. Accustomed to trample on the rights of others, you have lost the genius of your own independence and become the fit subjects of the first cunning tyrant who rises among you.” -Abraham Lincoln

  20. Art School Confidential was so right, being good isn’t enough, you need to get interesting. She’s doing that.

    The’re are better and more originals ways to be turly controversial and make a statement. I just don’t buy this.

  21. “The presidency itself is a seemingly immortal and impenetrable institution…”

    These are fine gestural pieces. Miss Lai herself could become at least an immortal institution.

  22. #33
    ETHAN, I feel so grateful for your clarification and, in a way I’m in agreement with you. I’ve always struggled with statements vs viewing the work raw. I get the power of “just putting it out there” and letting an audience encounter it without a safety net of understanding and intent.

    I’m judging that she’s
    A. a young artist and is still adjusting her voice / presentation.
    B. is putting it out there with transparency and vulnerability as a principal.
    C. Might be feeling nervous about whether her point is getting across in the way that she intends.

    BTW, David Lynch almost totally destroyed the credibility of his work for me by doing the whole “here’s how to be creative” thing, after years of impenetrable masking and secrecy about his work and methods.

  23. I’m impressed. This is a fascinating project, and she’s not only talented, she’s put out something that is going to generate a lot of discussion, here and elsewhere. I can predict even more controversy if this project results in an exhibit in a meatspace art gallery.

  24. So does that make the painter the vector for all of George Washington’s STDs to the rest of them?

  25. Warhol once replied “No,shock sells,” in an interview about Pop Art’s increasing emphasis on sexual themes.
    I would clarify perhaps with “Fresh juxtaposition sells,” but whatever floats your boat.

  26. I always enjoy art more before I read the artist’s statement. No matter how hard they try it always comes off sounding pretentious.

    That, and “subvert” is used far too often.

  27. Beautiful! Who wants to illustrate a series about beating up every president and then taking Ms. Lai?

  28. @37 Sean

    That seems like a pretty good list of possible driving factors for the artist’s statement. I’d add that statements like that were probably required/expected by Lai’s undergrad school.

    To be fair, I did suggest in my original post that the concept was tacked on.

    That a little too simple, though, because I do think it is completely legitimate to discover the meaning of an artwork in the process of making it or reflecting upon it after it is done, “Why was I drawn to make this?” And who knows, perhaps Lai did originate the project by wondering, “How can I humanize the presidents?”

    My reaction was really coming from how pat the statement was. I’m sure all those issues are part of the work–but those are all the clean, safe, intellectual aspects of the work. It would be nice to leave the works’ meaning much more open.

  29. And yet my oil paintings of me having sex with every Pope, in order, languish in obscurity.

    I even did the antipopes!

  30. She’s 24- give the kid a break. I enjoy the series very much so far. I hope she gets progressively kinkier as she gets into the 20th century.

  31. “It would be nice to leave the works’ meaning much more open.”

    And it is. Just because the artist has elaborated on her motivations for creating the work, doesn’t mean you can’t take what you want from it. It’s not a guessing game.

    “She’s 24- give the kid a break.”

    She’s 24, and so hardly a kid!

  32. I find the painting of her and Pierce (#14) very beautiful and very real. She very precisely captured the awkwardness (and eroticism) of initial penetration.

    I’m guessing she used someone as a stand-in for the presidents. What a job! Rather better than standing in for the rehearsal of the inauguration ceremony…

  33. @6 – that was my first thought exactly too!

    also, i think it is only fair for her to do hillary too! why should she be left out just because she is a woman!

  34. She’s a fine painter and she’s chosen an interesting subject matter, but it’s her statement that I find the most arresting. “I feel this is the most humanizing thing I can do.” To see sex as a way of humanizing a person you might otherwise have very little connection to, this, I find very intriguing.

  35. Very reminiscent of Attila Lukacs in the early 1990’s.

    Sean BlueArt, in appears what most readers are reacting to is the gratuitous inclusion of Feminist theory coupled with Neo-Marxist power dialectics.

    To talk of subverting patriarchal authority while giving Lincoln a BJ, is to re-iterate a tired rhetoric, and be deliberately obscurantist.

    The concept is striking, but it loses its impact when the artist tries to channel our thoughts, and it loses even more whenteh attempt is to channel me into such a predictable and tired area.

    Far better to leave the impact open ended (as that’s what’s happening anyways).

  36. Also, this is nothing like Attila Lukacs work. Neo-Japanese / Kama Sutra style homo-erotic, violent nazi imagery VS. gestural portraiture of very intimate sex? Sorry dude, not seeing it.

  37. She’s 24, and so hardly a kid!

    She’s been doing this project for a long time.

    We worked on this graphic novel together over a year ago (which makes this the second time BoingBoing has featured her art), and she was already a good way into it then.

    I think it’s hella tight (and you guys need boyfriends).

  38. After she’s ‘done’ all 44, do you suppose she’ll move on to other world leaders- Margaret Thatcher, Kim Jung Il, Iyatolla Homaini? Or vice presidents- Spiro Agnew? Dick Cheney? Gross!

  39. I get one impression you don’t. I see one linkage you don’t.

    That’s the beauty of art.

    We get a range of reactions to the image presented.

    Why bother trying to channel the viewer into hackneyed politics?

  40. Let me put in a plug for Rutherford B. Hayes, one of our more obscure presidents. If that name conjures up any image at all, it’s of a pudgy guy with whiskers halfway down to his gut, just like all the other late 19th c. presidents.

    But in his younger days–well, I defy you to find a tastier future president in all of American history.

  41. Let me put in a plug for Rutherford B. Haye..

    Oh? Kinky before his time eh? Well we need trailblazers in the world of exploratory sexuality, more power I say! More power!

  42. true, all men who obtain high office ultimately whored their way there, but is it kind to point that out?

  43. to compare some of these men to whores, and indeed use whore as a derogatory word, is to insult a legitimate profession.

  44. “I’d say something about how bad the paintings are as paintings, but I recall that famous saying:

    “You can’t insult a whore.”

    What the fuck?

  45. I clicked on a few, but I’m so glad I didn’t find (or she hasn’t yet painted) Nixon…I’d have had to claw my eyes out.

  46. “I’d say something about how bad the paintings are as paintings, but I recall that famous saying:

    “You can’t insult a whore.”

    One would think that this wouldn’t need to be pointed out…but she isn’t ACTUALLY fucking all of the presidents.

    1. she isn’t ACTUALLY fucking all of the presidents.

      Or….if she is, we’d like to see a post about her time machine.

  47. These paintings are actually really good. the intimacy is refreshing, and I like how she uses impressionistic techniques but still uses realistic proportions and compositions. It makes everything recognizable yet still expressive.

    The artist’s statement does seem a bit pretentious, but I think the paintings stand up well enough on their own. And really, I can see what she’s getting at; it just sounds more pretentious when put into words like that.

    Nice call #9 on her pegging Buchanan… pretty sly.

  48. @29 (late to the game, I know).

    “Chong presented her work in pornography as an attempt to challenge the settled notions and assumptions of viewers about female sexuality. For example, her conception of a gang bang was based on the example of Messalina, a wife of the emperor Claudius. Historically, Messalina has suffered a poor reputation, a fact that some attribute (at least partly) to gender bias. Chong sought to question the double standard that denies women the ability to exhibit the same sexuality as men, by modelling what a female “stud” would be.”

  49. Anonymous: “…Didn’t you see my series of paintings of me getting it on with the President’s wives?”

    Are Eleanor Roosevelt and Barbara Bush in there?
    I’m not going there, because some images cannot be erased from one’s memory.

  50. Interesting. Great idea and well-done! Only wish the background wasn’t white, but who’s looking at that?!

  51. @#86 : KAIZA ,

    Yes, thanks for the response. I looked up Chong when I read your comment. I disagree with Chong. I don’t see how she’s challenging anything, I read her statement as: If I degrade my sexuality just as much as the men do then I will somehow even the score.

    For me, women are “one up” on the men for not being so corrupt. I have a hard time seeing it as some kind of smart move to equal the balance. I just feel sad about it. It’s kinda like saying ; if you stick pins in a puppy dogs eye, then I can even the score by also sticking pins in a puppy dogs eyes. The argument doesn’t make sense to me.

    There’s something very different about what Lai’s doing; it’s a kind of ontological fantasy for which intimacy is a metaphor for equalizing power and carrying out the “Emperor’s New Clothes” story in a new way.

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