Chiao-Han Chueh Challenges Stereotypes Amid #MeToo in ‘Intimate Play’

Reflecting on the notions of gender and conformity, the artist's solo exhibition in New York focuses squarely on societal norms.

When Taiwanese artist Chiao-Han Chueh first presented her artwork to her college professor, she was met with an outburst of criticism. The middle-aged man shouted, “Why do all the women in your artwork look so ugly? This is a waste of paint.”

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An installation view of “Intimate Play” at Nunu Fine Art New York. Photo: Martin Seck

Cheuh had seen herself as an aspiring artist, eager to express her talents and showcase her unique artistic voice. But hateful comments like this quickly dampened her enthusiasm. Such criticisms not only undermined her belief in the freedom of expression inherent in Western art but also hindered her ability to respond authentically. And so she reluctantly accepted the notion that her depictions of women were flawed.

Fast forward to 2019, when 30-year-old Cheuh decided it was time for a change, moved to Germany and enrolled in the University of Fine Arts Hamburg to study painting. Little did she know this transition would lead to a profound revelation: she could be a true painter. It was in Hamburg that Chueh unearthed her artistic voice—one that defied conventional beauty standards and fearlessly challenged societal norms.

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Recently, the #MeToo movement has gained momentum in Taiwan, revealing numerous instances of male professors in art schools treating female students differently and engaging in inappropriate behavior.

“With a predominantly female student body and mostly male professors, it becomes challenging to establish a career as an artist in Taiwan unless you conform to the expectations set by male professors or are favored by them,” Cheuh tells Observer. “The scarcity of resources in Taiwan further limits opportunities to grow, and the professors hold considerable power.”

Shaped by these gender dynamics, Chueh’s paintings in her solo exhibition “Intimate Play” at Nunu Fine Art New York break new ground for Taiwanese female artists. Her work aims to create a vibrant world populated by untamed female figures, challenging long-standing gender stereotypes and addressing the prevalence of sexual harassment in that part of the world.

Through her deliberately naive painterly style, vibrant color palette and whimsical imagery, Chueh breathes innocence and freedom into her female figures, liberating them from the shackles of patriarchal restrictions. Her narratives pulsate with desire, as her characters succumb to their primal impulses, embracing their authenticity and unapologetically expressing themselves.

With a deep affinity for artists like Willem de Kooning, Georg Baselitz and Marlene Dumas, Chueh delves into themes of intimacy, self-exploration and the role of sexuality in society. Breaking free from the constraints of expectation, Chueh’s work celebrates female empowerment and gender fluidity, as well as the connections between humans and the natural world.

‘An Intimate Play’ (2023) oil and acrylic on canvas. Courtesy Nunu Fine Art

In An Intimate Play (2023), Chueh portrays three naked figures in light pinkish tan, blues and purples, reminiscent of German Expressionism. Notably, the two women try to conceal their faces, inviting viewers to contemplate self-perception and external judgment, while the male figure looks directly at the viewer. The dystopian atmosphere in the painting suggests that women in Taiwan often lose themselves to societal gender norms.

In Jobs for Daughter (2022), two girls cling to the legs of an elderly man. The man, who appears to be an authoritative figure, lies naked on the ground or is perhaps being dragged. Chueh uses cool tones—fossil gray and charcoal—to depict the man and the space, while the girls are depicted in bright pink, symbolizing their innocence. This painting reminds one of the groundbreaking novel Fang Si-Chi’s First Love Paradise by Taiwanese author Yi-Han Lin, which narrates the story of a girl who endures long-term sexual abuse by her teacher Guo-Hua Li. Tragically, the author Lin committed suicide shortly after the novel’s publication.

Cheuh’s reflection on gender and conformity stems from a youth in which the elderly women in her family taught her to suppress her feminine traits for safety. Consequently, Cheuh would often dress like a tomboy and not take care of her appearance.

“The older generations would say to me ‘Are you trying to attract criminals by dressing like this?’” she explains. “Perhaps in my grandmother’s era, it was really unsafe. But you sometimes feel that in today’s society, it is not safe either. You are constantly reminded that women can’t do many things.”

‘Swim Competition-On the Ocean’ (2023) acrylic on canvas; ‘The Metaphor of Jumping with Rats’ (2023). Courtesy Nunu Fine Art

In Swim Competition-On the Ocean (2023), three naked women take part in a fierce swimming meet. Chueh says this painting was inspired by Milan Kundera’s book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. There is a scene in which Tereza, the protagonist Tomas’ young wife, recurringly dreams she is stripped of all clothing, surrounded by other unclothed women, as they wander around a pool. Tereza perceives this situation as the epitome of horror because she believes that both her body and the bodies of the other women lack souls.

Cheuh says that the recent #MeToo movement in Taiwan encourages women to reclaim their sense of self, which has inspired her to produce more work focused on how women in underserved communities challenge gender roles. Though some critics may assume Cheuh’s work is excessively erotic, she says that her paintings are not about male-female eroticism.

“It’s about intimacy, exploring one’s body and my contemplation of the function of sex in society,” says Cheuh. “I grew up with restrictions on exploring my femininity, so I know how it feels to be oppressed by societal expectations. I hope my art can bring strength and inspiration to those who have felt wounded and overlooked, just as art has done for me in the past.”

“Intimate Play” is on view at Nunu Fine Art New York through August 19.

Chiao-Han Chueh Challenges Stereotypes Amid #MeToo in ‘Intimate Play’