Across cultures, the trickster archetype has a special place in mythology and folklore. While characters like Coyote, Raven and Loki have their devious sides, they play an important role in creation myths and can be creators themselves.
UAA art professor Thomas Chung’s painting “The Trickster,” now on display at UAA’s ARC Gallery, looks to explore the nature of that archetype in society as well as his personal relationship to it.
“I think that the biggest message that’s left across these cultures is that great progress — some of the greatest progress — is through rule-breaking,” Chung said. “That if everybody just did what they were told, nothing would ever emerge, nothing would ever change.”
The painting, which is nearly 20 feet long, depicts a raging forest fire in the background and Chung in the center wearing a cowboy hat and vest with the Virgin Mary on it. He sits on the back of a pickup truck offering a light to a jumping coyote smoking a cigarette. In the foreground is a snake being milked of its venom into a glass. Slightly askew and superimposed on the pickup is another image of Chung, but shirtless and sprawled out next to paints and brushes.
Chung said he included the last image of himself after wanting to add an extra dimension to the painting. He took a photo of himself on top of the large work in progress and decided to include the resulting image in the final product. With a background in murals and performance, it was his way of breaking the fourth wall, further connecting himself with the work as well as the viewer. He likes working with life-size dimensions as it can have a deeper impact, allowing the viewer to have a more immersive experience with the piece.
It’s fitting that Chung, who often features images of himself in his work, chose to include his likeness in a piece exploring the trickster archetype. He identifies with the trickster, not only for its wily and rebellious nature, but for its importance in pushing boundaries and furthering creation.
“It’s a dangerous thing, I guess, to march to the beat of your own drum,” Chung said. “Not everyone is going to be able to understand that. Even sometimes you don’t understand that, and it’s an unpredictable kind of life to lead.”
Chung knows firsthand about what can happen when marching to the beat of your own drum. He said he doesn’t intentionally cause trouble, but often finds himself challenging social conventions. Whether he meant to or not, he recently stirred up a hornet’s nest of outrage online with one of his paintings.
Earlier this year he sparked controversy over a painting displayed at UAA featuring, among other things, a nude Chris Evans, who plays Captain America in the Marvel movie franchise, holding President Donald Trump’s severed head while Hilary Clinton clutches Evans’ leg. The painting was a take on the myth of Perseus and Medusa, but with imagery highlighting issues in America including racism and the treatment of women in society.
The painting titled “Everything” caused Chung to receive death threats and insults after going viral online and spurred a conversation about freedom of expression and whether the university should protect that type of subject matter. The University ultimately stood by its decision to allow the painting to stay up until its scheduled removal date.
“We understand that some may not support this exhibit, but universities — including UAA — are a place for free exchange of ideas, diversity of thoughts and of opinions, and ideally, a place for conversation to occur around our differences and similarities. Freedom of expression is fundamental to our mission and we support our faculty and students in exploring their ideas through creativity, research and scholarship,” wrote UAA Chancellor Tom Case in a statement regarding the painting.
While Chung’s work doesn’t shy away from dissent, he works to keep his classes an open forum to express ideas, even if he has a different viewpoint.
“One of the things that I admire most about [Chung] is that he makes his classroom the most open, safe space for students who are interested in communicating whatever they wish to communicate,” Steve Godfrey, head of UAA’s art department, said.
“Some teachers are good at teaching students how to make art, he teaches people how to be an artist,” Godfrey added.
Perhaps it’s Chung’s background in anthropology that fuels his willingness to explore different philosophies and beliefs. In fact, Chung actively tries to borrow from other cultures with his work. Without doing so, he thinks society subjects itself to a sort of cultural segregation.
“I worry that when people or our society’s too politically correct, this sort of stoppage of exchange happens where everyone’s too afraid of borrowing from non-mainstream culture, from non-Western culture for fear of it being inappropriate or fear of it being appropriation,” Chung said. “And so the result of that, I feel, is a total sort silencing of those cultures and just a disassociation and a spreading of more mainstream ideas.”
“The Trickster” will be on display at UAA’s ARC Gallery located next to the Consortium Library until Oct. 27.
The piece will be part of Chung’s upcoming exhibit featuring cross-cultural archetypes at the Anchorage Museum.