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In the flesh

Confrontational ‘Chunkism’ show provokes a range of opinions

Adam Carnes’ “Chunkism” show is on view at Living Arts through Feb. 23

Adam Carnes wants to shake things up with his larger than life depictions of very naked, very fleshy women. But he won’t tell you how to feel about his work, that’s entirely up to you. 

A recipient of the 2017 Tulsa Artist Fellowship, Carnes’ first gallery show, “Chunkism,” is hanging at Living Arts now through Feb. 23 and is already inviting controversy.

Standing in the gallery on opening night in a black “Security” t-shirt, holding a sign reading “Chunkism,” Carnes avoided questions and stood stock-still, seeing this role as performer is a “bit of a token” to what he is asking of his audience, which is to be a bit uncomfortable.  

Conceived as a combination of performance art and visual art, this is the first time all the “Chunkism” pieces have been shown together. Originally intended to be shown one or two at a time, Carnes wanted to “sideswipe the regular bystander going about their life,” and challenge people
to “look at things differently”
and to react.

A vital aspect of “Chunkism” is the reaction of the viewer to the work. A videographer is always present at the street shows, usually recording on Carnes’ iPhone so it “feels less intimidating…it’s more guerilla style and closer to the way people stare at their phones all day.” A mounted iPad serves this purpose at Living Arts. Carnes takes the videos and edits them into entertaining segments of a range of reactions and adds them to his website, Chunkism.com.

“I want to encourage people to look at things differently, and encourage honest, impulsive feedback too,” Carnes said. “I want their unadulterated opinions. I welcome negative or positive. I encourage it.”  

Reactions to the work in Tulsa have been mixed. 

Noor Kahbi was at the opening with a group of friends and found the absence or blurring of the subjects faces to be intriguing. 

“Someone who might be uncomfortable viewing this won’t have distractions to the eye,” she said. “They have to look at what is presented to them and accept it, really focus on it.” 

Her friend, Portlyn Houghton-Harjo, agreed.

“It’s breaking barriers that we are used to, especially since it’s kind of like classical art, but turned on its head.” 

Others were initially taken aback. Leon Powell got booted out of his house on a Friday night so his wife could have a girls’ night. Goaded into attending the opening, he was initially turned off by the size, scope and aggressive portrayal of flesh in the paintings. 

“It almost looks like it started as a photograph,” he said, motioning to a particularly detailed painting in which a non-idealized vulva is clearly present. 

“The subject matter, at first I was like ‘hmmm?’ Then the longer I looked the more I appreciated it. It’s so real. And I can’t say enough about the subject matter. I wonder why he’s drawn to it?”

If Mr. Powell had hoped for an answer to that question, he is out of luck because Carnes does not, as he said, “feel it’s necessary to append an in-depth point of view” to his paintings, an attitude which has drawn some criticism from other members of the Tulsa arts community.

Local artist Taryn Singleton saw the show and found several aspects of Carnes’ work to be problematic, so she tagged Carnes in an Instagram post and started a somewhat heated conversation across several social media platforms that included Carnes and other members of the Tulsa arts community.

“I think that artists definitely have a responsibility to be mindful of the kinds of images and ideas that they put into the world, especially when claiming to deal with large concepts or questions such as ‘where are humanity and society going?’ (from Adam’s artist statement in the gallery),” Singleton said.

“By starting this dialogue with Carnes and the community, I hope to raise awareness about the problems Carnes represents with this body of work and to show that artistic accountability is important.”

Carnes has chosen to create works of art that, by their very size and subject matter will invite controversy, but then doubled-down by denying viewers the gratification that a cohesive artist’s statement can provide. He has challenged them to confront their own feelings about the work, and then asked for their opinions.

Because, as he sees it, he is “putting on a pedestal the way people perceive and interrupt art and what they expect to get from art,” as opposed to his singular artistic interpretation.

For more from Amanda, read her article on the Women’s March on Oklahoma.