By Renee Montgomery

Chunkism No. 1, oil on wood, 79” x 96”
Chunkism No. 1, oil on wood, 79” x 96”

During this era of fake news and ‘alternative facts’ propagated on the Internet, painter/performance artist Adam Carnes confronts the public with hyper-realistic images of obese human figures, documenting viewers’ search for meaning.

Since 2015 Carnes has popped up his large oil paintings of flaccid naked bodies in guerrilla exhibitions at festivals and sidewalks in New York and New Orleans (e.g. Times Square and Union Square; Julia Street, and the Fried Chicken Festival.) Desiring honest, unadulterated comments from the average person, Carnes poses incognito as a security guard next to the paintings, while a videographer films the reactions of passersby—a performance concept he terms “Chunkism.”

Beginning a 2017 Tulsa Artist Fellowship last month, the Florida-born Carnes is now showing fourteen of these so-called “Fleshscapes” and earlier nudes at Living Arts Tulsa, where they have generated animated response in a brief period.

What are these plus-size nudes meant to represent? Visitors grapple. Is this a shaming of an overfed, morbidly obese diabetic nation? Or, conversely, is it a body-positive celebration of voluptuousness vis-à-vis “My Big Fat Fabulous Life” or the plus-size revolution in high fashion?

Maybe the paintings are just another innocuous installment in the art historical lineage of nude subject matter—an update of Rubens’ corporeality or Botero’s ‘inflations’. The artist’s non-descript titles, like No. 1 or No. 2 offer no clues about Carnes’ intentions. In certain paintings (Chunkism No. 1) the heavy folds and hanging fat appear unnatural—some sections exaggerated or even amalgamated, like rock formations, thereby recalling the Venus of Willendorf prehistoric figurines.

Indeed, Carnes sees the works as “totems of self-reflection” alluding “to Golem, fertility, mother earth, mortality, Eros and Thanatos.” To art aficionados, Carnes bodies may also be reminiscent of the poor souls of Magic Realist Ivan Albright—in their homely alienation and loose textural handling of pale skin tone.

With formal art training—an MFA from the New York Academy of Art—Carnes painted representational figures until late 2013 when he began focusing on the “Chunkism” theme. He works back and forth from live models and photographs as a springboard to his conceptualism. “I’ve always been fascinated by people and I was seduced by the great artists who could paint flesh so well,” Carnes explained in a recent TV interview. The term “Chunkism” was actually dubbed by artist-mentor Red Grooms after first encountering one of the paintings in Carnes’ Manhattan studio.

Citing statistics such as how Americans spend one-third of their time on their smart phones, Carnes maintains that his subject matter is not really about the bodies themselves—but how the public interacts with one another and their perception of reality. “On the Internet, there’s this uncanny valley that’s fascinating, a sort of hyper-reality. The idea that someone is so real, but not quite, can be very unsettling and disturbing,” the artist states.

Framing his nudes as a platform for debate, Carnes never comments on the obese figures themselves, leaving interpretation to the viewer. Barraged with questions and probing during his pop up shows, he dances around onlookers’ questions and sometimes anger, even backlash, as many find the works objectionable. “If looks could kill,” he describes experiences traveling on the NYC subway with the paintings. According to the artist, some comments have been political, such as “Look at Trump,” or curious. One viewer quipped that the paintings reminded him of the “President of Egypt.”

The provocative exhibitions have received coverage by major news media including Oklahoma Channel 2 and 8 evening news, and the Tulsa World daily newspaper. At Living Arts, visitors are encouraged to leave comments on a gallery iPad and iPhone stations, or submit short audio or video clips to a special email account that the artist will later compile into a longer video on his site.

Since the opening, Carnes has been threatened with a petition organized by a handful of local artists who reject his art as sexist (e.g., the headless nudes No. 2, 6, and No. 8 Study) and even racist in their whitewashed tones, resenting Carnes’ refusal to accept accountability.

Carnes plans to continue traveling his art in the US while completing his fellowship. His bodies have been included in a Skira Rizzoli publication entitled The Figure reviewed on Hyperallergic and available in museum shops, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, the National Gallery of Art, DC, and the Royal Academy of Arts, London. Viewers’ comments about the “Fleshscapes” can be found at the “Chunkism” Facebook page or at Chunkism.com

Guerrilla Exhibition at Times Square, NYC
Guerrilla Exhibition at Times Square, NYC. Image courtesy of the artist.