‘It’s like you’re really seeing beyond,’
Payback explains to Rafterman, the combat photographer who accompanies
the Lusthog Squad into the devastated city of Hué. He is
describing the unfocused gaze of a battle-weary soldier, the camouflage
net thrown by the subconscious over emotions deranged and wounded
by the strain of war.
The gaze is known as the ‘thousand-yard stare’, a
blank, ‘spaced out’ look familiar in peacetime as
the wide-eyed, battle-worn face of the modern substance abuser.
Fixed on a far-off scene found mostly in the mind, the spectator
is the subject as much as the view. With vision turned physically
outward but mentally inward, actions become mechanical and routine
as the body relinquishes its own efforts to process too much information.
‘A grunt gets it,’ Payback concludes, ‘when
he’s been in the shit too long.’
Belonging partly to observation and partly to inner vision, Gordon
Cheung’s paintings appear to occupy a territory comparable
with the combatants’ predicament. Often carried out on a
scale that surrounds and ensnares the visitor, they bring to the
gallery the unsettling sensation of being ‘in between’.
For quite what is in sight is hard to deduce: visual information
that at first looked credible proceeds by upsetting expectations.
Forms reveal themselves as warped; colours flare into lurid florescence
with cloying synthetic hues; and space falls away into searching
voids. The size of these images historically semaphores ‘grand
themes’ with moral or political implications, but their
extent also recalls the massive canvases of recent American art,
such as the universalistic conceptions of Barnett Newman or Mark
Rothko’s deeply evocative non-geometric compositions. Even
cursory analysis reveals the undulating surface rhythm not to
be a veil on top but the foundation upon which Cheung’s
expansive terrains are brought together. With closer scrutiny
the rufescent, ostensibly corrugated texture resolves incongruously
into column after column of stock-market prices collaged out of
the Financial Times.
This compelling feature confirms that Cheung’s work should
not be taken literally; consider it as a mirage listing between
the real and the virtual. Shape, line and colour quaver feverishly
on a picture plane traversed by more data than any grunt on the
gallery circuit could ever absorb. For the abundance is an indisputable
product of here and now; and although coined in WW2, the title
of this exhibition is familiar today through pop culture and Stanley
Kubrick’s Vietnam war drama, Full Metal Jacket (1987). A
favourite film of Cheung’s, the ruined Far Eastern city
and palm-treed open country it portrayed were themselves a mirage:
celluloid warfare was waged by the Thames at Beckton which, to
enhance the obliquity that stalks Cheung’s sources, is not
far from the east London studio of this British-born Chinese painter.
As in the virtual world of film and computer technology, Cheung’s
images constantly undermine assumptions about their authenticity
and identity. With pooled acrylic a minor element, they manifest
a sophisticated deployment of newsprint, Photoshop software, collage,
ink, gels, resin and spray cans that strains their classification
as ‘painting’. Even in the heterogeneous practices
of contemporary Britain, Cheung’s practical dexterity and
craftsmanship position him on the edge of a mainstream more drawn
to expressive projections of painterly showmanship. In spite of
their variety, his media appear dematerialised; beneath the veneer
of varnish every element fuses into an impeccably constructed,
continuous surface. This physical detachment fools the eye into
greater uncertainty, heightening the sensation of acute cognition
being displaced into sequential hallucinatory episodes.
With his preference for chromatophilic cartoons, the geeky galactic
sublime of science-fiction book covers and garish vulgarity in
everyday kitsch, Cheung perceives an ‘outsider’ quality
in his resources chastised in some circles as ‘low’.
But his delight in it imbues his delusional in-between world with
links to popular experience, precarious toe-holds on the restraints
of time, space and taste; with their collapse the observing mind
is rushed into the ambiguity of the instant. There trippy fluorescent
skies reminiscent of late 1960s’ hippy ephemera soft land
on today’s anxious social landscape populated by graffiti
ghouls, billowing waterfalls and a clowning 43rd president. Simultaneously
flashing soullessly ahead is the rapid trading of global financial
futures: for every high price earned a high price is paid.
Through the technical mastery of wide angles or deep focus, cinematographers
skilfully construct provocative atmospheres to induce a mental
state in audiences that augments their dreamed-up tales. In Cheung’s
strategy lies a fainter echo than the viewer expects. For while
mixed-up, fragmentary allusions to the real and virtual worlds
funnel into his hierographic landscapes, Cheung claims that their
significance dawns on him only months after their completion.
Propelled by the intensity of the studio, making acquires a dream-like
dimension with connections made and imagery retrieved that the
conscious mind would dismiss. Encountering Freud’s The Interpretation
of Dreams (1900) by chance as an undergraduate, Cheung acquired
insight into his own situation from this influential text’s
proposition of conflicting psychic forces. After Freud, the strongest
impact on his world picture was made by the dystopian fiction
of J.G. Ballard in whose simulated worlds deviant nature cracks
through the fragile veneer of moral and social etiquette that
defines civilised life. Appealing strongly to Cheung is this author’s
contention that in a society obsessed with material objects, careers
and fashion, madness is the only means by which individuals remain
human; the wavering skyscrapers that recur in Cheung’s paintings
reignite the powerful perversities innate to Ballard’s novels
High Rise (1975) and Super-Cannes (2000).
If one impulse to make art is to get a sense of the world as matter
then Cheung, since embarking on that route, has ploughed enlightenment
back into his work. Acknowledging that expectation to conform
has been culturally and artistically part of his nature and his
struggle, this artist has licensed himself through experience
to contend with the philosophical structures of self, society
and his profession on his own terms. Permission to paint how he
wanted came not from his peers or tutors but through the unlikely
source of the truck drivers of Pakistan; he encountered their
super-decorated customised vehicles during a temporary residency
in 2002. At huge cost, the drivers emblazoned every self-made
mirrored and beaded panel with contradictory combinations of idyllic
bucolic scenes, kitsch-coloured religious imagery and, more often
than not, illustrations of military hardware that glorified the
state. Such copious outlay on effulgent joy in a war zone demonstrated
its own self-belief.
It was the artistic licence that Cheung needed. With apocalypse
beckoning but on hold, it was like ‘you’re really
When I started using the stock listings, it was right at the beginning
of the communications and digital revolution; internet and mobile
technology was becoming readily available and there was utopian
euphoria about the new technologies – in terms of digital
frontiers, global villages, cyberspace, breaking down boundaries
and borders, free-sharing of information... but all of this went
into a sharp downturn with the dot-com crash, censorship etc...
I have always been interested in the relationship between utopia
and dystopia; the boom and crash of ideology. For me the stock
listings constitute a very apt vehicle to use as a metaphor from
the everyday, representing a global space; each tiny digit part
of a global network representing a company, service, workforce
and, ultimately, us the individual.
Martin Holman is a writer and exhibition organiser
based in London, and is currently guest editor of the art magazine,
Miser & Now.
© Martin Holman 2007
18 August 2007