When Szu-Chieh Yun and her family immigrated to the United States from Taiwan in 1998, she remembers being nervous about her ability to communicate.
"For a long time, I felt really insecure about my English abilities and my writing abilities," said Yun. "I think when I first was learning and adapting to everything, I was in spaces where I felt less than smart."
For 35-year-old Yun, art provided an avenue to articulate feelings that may have been hard to speak or write about.
"I would be able to draw these things and to conceptualize these things, to grasp it the way I knew how," she said. "There's something about that that feels so freeing. It's a way for me to not necessarily escape, but to understand what's happening around me."
Her parents were supportive — she distinctly recalls being allowed to draw and paint on the walls in the house. "I would draw myself as a grown-up and I would be an artist," Yun said. Her artistic abilities led her to attend Boston Arts Academy for high school and then Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt). (Yun actually started teaching there this fall.)
Lyssa Palu-ay, the dean of the Office of Justice, Equity and Transformation at MassArt, met Yun when she was part of the Academic Compass Program, which provides mentorship for first-generation MassArt students. "I've always been amazed at the layers of depth that Szu really explores in her painting, in her installation, in her material," Palu-ay said. "There's a deep curiosity in the way Szu thinks about the world and the way she perceives her experiences and tries and hopes to translate that in her art."
Over the years, Yun has developed a unique visual language that helps her interrogate unwieldy, complicated topics. An example of this is her recent installation "Rage and Ecstasy" at the Boston Center for the Arts' Mills Gallery. She used the "Karen" concept as a springboard to interrogate white supremacy and power.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly when the name "Karen" became shorthand for a particular type of social phenomenon — when a woman (often white) has an outburst in a public setting. "I remember seeing a lot of videos of the 'Karen' behavior for a long time before there was a name for it," Yun said. "Maybe as early as 2011. Amy Cooper ... was the first and most concise video I’ve seen that described 'Karen' behavior."
In May 2020, Cooper accused a Black birdwatcher in Central Park of threatening her because he asked her to leash her dog. Video footage captured by Christian Cooper (no relation), the birdwatcher in question, contradicted Amy Cooper's call to police. The moment caused an uproar online at a time when racial tensions were rising in response to the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
"I started by just responding to those videos of her," Yun explained. "And I would just paint from the videos." Yun used oil paint to create three panels depicting the incident with bright, garish shades of green. In her series "Central Park," she accurately replicates Cooper, phone in one hand, collared dog in the other. These works became the first in Yun's investigation into the dynamics at play when "Karens" freak out. Who gets to express rage in public settings? And who ends up being the recipient of that rage? For Yun, the "Karen" became an alluring point of entry into a deeper conversation about race and power.
"You think about that hierarchy that exists," Yun said. "That 'Karen' is part of the system of abuse. And she has a certain positionality. And she can take this anger out on people who have less power." In the videos of "Karens" Yun examined, she noted how their rage was directed at those with less social capital — store workers and people of color. For her, "Karen" became a metaphor for the racist, patriarchal systems that simultaneously benefit and negatively impact white women.
"There's something about her that is capturing like a mass imagination," Yun said. "I imagine myself as 'Karen' when I'm making these paintings, where I put myself in her shoes. I try to think about myself in this moment of rage, to behave like this in public spaces and to have that power in this way. As an Asian woman, I don't think I have that positionality to do that. But I imagine myself as someone who feels like they are not able to access that power."
Yun's "Houndstooth," a massive oil on canvas piece, grapples with this complicated reality. A figure clad in a houndstooth jacket stands slightly off-center at what appears to be a Starbucks counter, limbs and hair flailing in the midst of a euphoric, angry fit. She's surrounded by dogs, some of whom chase brightly colored treats, while one dog vomits on the floor.
The other customers and workers are rendered in cool shades of blue, either oblivious to or willfully ignorant of the tantrum being thrown in the store. Yun's expressive brush strokes capture the chaos. "I think about that 'Karen' moment of this outrage in public as a power fantasy," Yun explained. She poses the question about the connection between rage and pleasure — is there an ecstasy derived from being able to wield social power?
Stephen Hamilton, an artist and educator at MassArt and a long-time friend of Yun's, has seen how Yun's artistic practice developed over time. "We got out of school during the recession and there was a point in time where she wasn't really making artwork," Hamilton said. "That's what makes me so happy about this latest body of work, is some of the pre-grad school Szu is coming back into the work that she's creating now."
Despite the numerous videos and think pieces on the "Karens" that permeate the internet, Yun found that some were still unwilling to broach or engage with the subject matter in her pieces. The BCA was the first place that wanted to show the series. "I think some people had a hard time because it feels like, 'Oh, you hate all white women,'" Yun said. "And it's not true. I think about the women in these images and I actually have a lot of faith in the people that might look like this."
Yun isn't confronting an individual or even a particular "Karen." Instead, she is criticizing the systems that enable the proliferation of the "Karen" so that viewers "can see past the initial confrontation, and see what I see. It's about this abuse being passed down to the people who have less power."
Yun hopes that people see this body of work and are open to having hard and honest conversations about race and gender. "Are you taking power from someone else?" Yun asked. "Or are you giving power to people?
This segment aired on October 20, 2023.