Artist in Profile
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What is Respect?
An automated female voice melds into silent footsteps and curious eyes. Ten monolithic pieces subtly critique the layers of sexism, racism, and patriarchy their creator perceives in contemporary culture and politics.
Textile artist Kelly Chuning tells her stories through single sentences, all originally either said to her or thought by her. It functions as a feminist manifesto. Welcome to the “What is Respect?” exhibition at Red Arrow Gallery.
Chuning is a biracial Latina and Indigenous woman raised in a conservative Christian community in Utah. Upon arriving at Southwestern Utah University in pursuit of her BFA, however, she began to view the world differently and form her own belief system.
On June 24, her news feeds confirmed the news so many of us had been dreading: The Supreme Court had overturned Roe v. Wade. This decision led directly to total abortion bans in more than 12 states, including Tennessee, making abortion access illegal and unsafe.
By August 25, Tennessee had enacted its trigger law, banning all abortions. This ban makes no exceptions for rape or incest, nor even to save the life of the pregnant person. (It includes, instead, an “affirmative defense” — meaning doctors who are sued or arrested for performing the procedure may attempt to prove in court that it was medically necessary.)
Against this backdrop, Chuning asks us: “What is Respect?” The capitalization of respect personifies the word, giving it a body. If we imagine Respect as a person, what would that individual look like? Male, female, non-binary? White or a person of color? Patriotic or regal?
Chuning answers her own question with the pieces that make up her It’s All Just Talk series. This is Chuning’s lifelong work, measuring the effects of language in relation to the female mind, body, and spirit.
For the exhibition, Red Arrow’s gallery space has been converted into a memorial, as a robotic voice pours out of speakers, reciting Tennessee’s anti-abortion law.
The first piece one encounters, “silly thoughts, usually after assault,” hangs in monolithic rebellion at 49-by-96 inches. “I am a toy, made for consumption, never for my own pleasure,” the piece proclaims. The line breaks Chuning employs are poetic in nature, allowing each word to methodically wash over the viewer, and the sentence highlights a dissociation from one’s own body, speaking to the secondary role women often play in the primary narrative of men.
"I challenge the viewer to think of the words we say and the power we hold."
- Kelly Chuning
In her statement about the exhibition, Chuning references her own sexual assault during college. This deeply personal context is expressed in the gray wool piece, “for the bible tells me so,” which features a single, centered sentence in white: “Through Shame, I Am Saved.” Chuning succinctly evokes the feelings of inadequacy common among women in certain corners of Christianity.
“More Than Once” is a stacked triptych: “KNOW” “YOUR” and “PLACE,” in petal-pink capital letters on white woolen panels. Each word is powerful on its own, but together evoke a feeling familiar to far too many people. Know My Place as a woman? Know My Place as a BIPOC individual?
“Woman to Woman” sits as an antagonistic contrast to the message of “silly thoughts, usually after assault,” evoking the subconscious blame some women transfer onto each other via the words “This is a Man’s World, Get Over It,” once again written in candy pink. Chuning wields her pale-pink words as a weapon. The color, a universal shorthand for female presence, is a loaded signifier intended to irritate or excite the viewer.
Not all Chuning’s statements reside on the walls. Spread on the floor in a corner, “What is Respect?” is an all-pink woolen rendition of the American flag that she invites viewers to walk on. Chuning wants the experience to feel both correct and deeply wrong.
“The American flag represents respect, but America isn’t respecting my body,” Chuning says as she stares down at the piece from the upper floor of the gallery.
“It took me 150 hours to complete the flag,” she says. Indeed, she spent almost the entire month of March making the piece, starting when she heard that Roe v. Wade was likely to be overturned. The work to make such a piece is physically grueling as well as emotionally draining, and she wound up in physical therapy from the repetitive stress of all the needle felting.
Chuning is scientific with her work, using every opportunity to make a statement and call attention to inequality and origin. Even the pink dye used to color her anti-feminist words comes from cochineal bugs native the American Southwest, a nod to her indigenous roots.
Each quote or thought Chuning illustrates feels gut-wrenching and targeted, confirming the fears that many women have rolling around in the backs of their minds these days.
Most of the pink words on the white wool works have been said, at one point or another, by women. Throw like a girl. Cry like a girl. Whine like a girl. All these statements are used as verbal weapons and inflict a subconscious layer of trauma.
With this exhibition, Chuning has created works that map the cultural zeitgeist of our time, noting each imprint of bigotry and intolerance. She hopes she can take the work to every state with a total abortion ban and gain new meaning with each audience. Her goal? “I challenge the viewer to think of the words we say and the power they hold.”
To see more images from the Red Arrow Gallery exhibition, plus more of Chuning’s work, visit her website, kellychuning.com