The series of works now hanging in the main gallery at Truckee Meadows Community College started with an image of an X-ray the artist happened to see laying on the table at the house of a friend.
“I saw this image on her dining table and thought it was so beautiful,” said Paula Chung. “Since I’m a fiber artist, I thought I’d reproduce it in thread.” She based a piece on it, titled “Marie”—a 47-by-45-inch fiber work depicting an X-ray of a human neck.
Thus began a many-year process—exploring imagery of the inner workings of the human body. Chung reinterprets images of MRIs, X-rays and sonograms, using thread. Previously, she had applied the more traditional fiber method of embroidering hand-dyed thread onto silk. She then translated the imagery to wire screens, and finally, in the latest iteration—made specially for the exhibition at TMCC—she began sewing onto used tea bags.
The size of the pieces is the first thing to make an impression. Two of them, suspended from the center of the room, extend a full 12 feet high. The outlines of the bodies on them feel shroud-like, and because the materials used are fairly light, they sway gently with the air. The colors of the tea bags range from peachy pink and pale khaki to bronze and olive brown, reminiscent of skin. That connection becomes even more prominent in relation to the subject matter. There is a sense of vulnerability and tenuousness in the materials that is echoed in the title of the show—A View Within: Fragility—and at the heart of what the artist is interested in exploring.
“I wanted to emphasize the fragility of the paper,” said Chung, about her choice of tea bags as the base material, which she fused to net so they wouldn’t tear too easily. “I get the X-ray or the MRI, I mess with it in Photoshop, then figure out the difference between values. The darker lines represent value differences or borders between values.”
Each piece uses hundreds of feet of thread that she sews on with a machine outlining skeletons, articulating vertebrae, revealing tumors, or drawing the cardiovascular system—a process she calls “doodling.” All of the line work builds up and creates a topography of the body, almost like a map. The pieces’ large sizes allow viewers to look at things closely, to intimately investigate the structure of the pieces and see where the body might be breaking down or out of alignment. The translucency of the two pieces hanging in the middle of the room emphasizes the thinness of the materials and allows for a more three-dimensional experience of the work, which interacts with the lighting in the gallery. There is an interesting balance between beauty and something unsettling.
“I find because of the human form, I think everybody can relate to these images in some way or another,” Chung said. “I love watching the reaction to my work. One woman, a radiologist who visited my exhibition in Houston, said she could diagnose people from these and was in tears.”
Chung described embroidering the images onto the tea bags as a kind of meditation and finds herself thinking about the person that is in each image. Some of them are close friends or children of friends, and that added connection comes through in the work. When a friend saw her piece titled “Lynn,” showing a curved lower spine, she told Chung, “You’ve taken more care with me than my doctor has.”