A controversial painting of a figure holding President Donald Trump‘s severed head was on display at the University of Alaska Anchorage and has social media and conservatives in an uproar. The painting was created by Professor Thomas Chung, who also included a young Hillary Clinton in the painting. Chung is the head of the UAA painting department.
Although the exhibition that the painting was part of was only scheduled to be on display until April 20, it’s still sparking discussion online.
Here’s what you need to know about Chung and his controversial work.
1. Chung Says He ‘Spent Days Weeping’ After Trump Won the 2016 Presidential Election’
In an interview with KRTUU, Chung said the painting shows Chris Evans, the actor who plays Captain America, holding the severed head of Trump. There is also a young Hillary Clinton clinging to Evans’ leg.
“I was reminded of those 80’s rock posters, where there’s a woman in tattered clothes clinging to a strong male hero’s leg,” Chung told KRTUU.
Chung said the main inspiration for the work was the feelings he had while watching election night coverage.
“After Trump was elected, I spent days just weeping. And it was really surprising, because I’m not a political person,” Chung told KRTUU. “I am a social artist. I deal mostly in ideals of culture and global culture, but this election bled into that.”
2. Former Professor Paul Berger Thinks There Would be More Outrage If Chung Painted Obama’s Severed Head
Paul Berger, a former adjunct professor at UAA, told KTUU that he thinks there “outrage would be fantastic” if Chung painted a figure holding President Barack Obama’s severed head.
“As a free speech advocate, everyone has a right to express their opinion the way they want to express them,” Berger, who describes himself as a political conservative, told the station. “But as a parent and a citizen, there’s a discussion. In a university setting, what’s appropriate?” Berger also said he found the image “disturbing.”
Chung himself even told KTUU that he wasn’t sure if the painting should be displayed at the university either.
“I was really torn about putting this piece up a faculty show, because I would never talk about my own political beliefs to my students,” Chung told the station. “I would never push that upon them and make them feel uncomfortable, and so I wondered to myself if putting up this painting was in a way doing that. But I realized that I feel very strongly about this, and I think even students that might be pro-Trump supporters could benefit from having a conversation with me about why I feel this way – why I painted this.”
“I guess the people are upset about the work that’s being shown,” Steven Godfrey, chairman of the Fine Arts Department at UAA, told KTUU. “If they were taking a class at the university and made art that was considered controversial, no matter what their political or religious bent is, we would do our best to protect them and protect their rights to make that kind of work in the institution, whether it would be a student or faculty.”
3. Chung’s Work Typically Mixes Pop Culture With Mythology
The Trump painting might have gained Chung extra attention, but mixing pop culture with mythological images is one of the features of his work. One of his other paintings has Angelina Jolie breastfeeding an Ethiopian baby while pouring Coca-Cola on its head and also breastfeeding a pig. It was part of his exhibition 1F14: That’s not God.
“It goes back to my interest for the sacred and profane,” Chung told the Anchorage Press in February 2017. “I think Cheetos are the most unsacred appearing thing, the most banal, everyday object. How could there possibly be a shred of God or anything mystical or spiritual in a bag of Cheetos? I don’t I know, I believe there is.”
Chung went to Yale for grad school and took a trip to the Amazon basin, which has greatly influenced his work. He built his dissertation around the two weeks he spent with the Shipibo tribe in Peru.
“I built my whole dissertation based on this experience,” Chung told the Anchorage Press. “Had I grown up in this village I would have had a vision of the Star Twins or the Giant Serpent that created everything, but because I grew up in suburban New Jersey the visage that appeared to me was Angelina Jolie in that movie.”
Chung has more of his work on display at his website.
4. Most of His Rate My Professor Reviews Are Positive
Most of the reviews on Chung’s Rate My Professor profile are positive, with an overall quality rating of 4.3. One review from 2015 did criticize Chung’s critiques. “The majority of your advice will be ‘wow, I really like ____,’ or complete silence. Easy A if you do what he likes and don’t mind messy critiques,” the reviewer wrote.
The most recent review is a negative one, written on April 20, the last day his Trump painting was on display. “Decent artist. Another looney leftist, though,” the reviewer wrote. “If you can ignore his idiotic radical political rants, you will probably enjoy the class. Pretty hard to ignore, though. There are better choices.”
5. Chung Grew Up in New Jersey & Went to School in Hong Kong
According to Chung’s university bio, he earned his B.F.A. at the San Francisco Art Institute in 2010 and an M.F.A. at Yale in 2013. He was born in New Jersey and raised in Hong Kong and New York City.
A 2015 profile in The Renegade Rip notes that Chung went to middle school in Hong Kong and his mother was in the advertising business. Before he went to Yale, he went to the woods of Virginia, where he ate snakes.
“The underlying basis of my work I believe is, that I’m investigating what makes us human,” Chung told students at Bakersfield College in 2015, reports the Renegade Rip. “Good art always asks more questions than it answers.”
In his Anchorage Press interview, Chung compared his early success to catching a White Whale. “What do you do when you catch it?” he said.