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  About the work War of Reason by Marilyn Zeitlin  


War of Reason

Text by Marilyn Zeitlin for the exhibition ASU Art Collection, Arizona State University Art Museum, 2006

The context from which Gordon Cheung draws his images is the international city of his birth --- London --- but also the city that is repeated on every continent now: Shanghai, Hong Kong, Mexico City, Johannesburg, Sao Paulo, Juarez, Karachi. It is a site of traditions set cheek-by-jowl with the newest, with venerated institutions flanked by porn shops and electronics stores. It is a decaying city that is increasingly home to a polyglot population of immigrants, waves of people dispossessed by changing political circumstances, drought, economies in collapse.

Gordon Cheung’s own family was among those waves of people who relocated to build a better life. His parents moved from Hong Kong to London in the late 60s, living first in a squat in Brixton. One generation later, Gordon was educated as an artist and is successfully engaged in that career, showing internationally and to significant acclaim.His work reflects the ecological deterioration, fragile social structures and infrastructures of the city. His world depicted in these paintings is half from his observation (he spent a residency in Pakistan, travels to Tokyo frequently) and half from the virtual world of video games and pachinko. These images, both the actual and the virtual, are now completely globalized. On one hand, they are utopian--- the escape land of the virtual--- and on the other, completely dystopic, with air that is unbreathable, roads that break over desiccated terrain, a post-apocalyptic vision of the world run into the ground. It is an unpeopled world. It is the image of the future.

Cheung builds his paintings from many sources. He first lays down a ground of The Financial Times onto which he has transferred images printed out on his computer. The financial news is, Cheung says, the digital fantasy world of the very rich, who watch the numbers shift and whose elation or misery are dictated by these abstractions. Over this ground, he pours, brushes, and sprays images, mixing media in the way that his fantasy city is overlaid with one effort to right itself after another, one failure over another. The effect is a broad range of scales and rhythms. The newsprint type is minute, much like an electronic buzz in the background. The soft-edged forms over it are hallucinatory, like night shadows. Over these, he paints broadly, expansively, in counterpoint to the minutiae of the newsprint. Puddles of paint cake and crack, becoming the earth that he depicts.

A writer reflecting upon War of Reason has said, “…a monstrous tree and the mountain shadow combine to form a mushroom cloud in an apocalyptic world ….” (Charlie G. Hare, 2005.) The work also jolts our memories of artistic traditions. The tree recalls the byobu screen or, a derivative of that decorative tradition, a Chinese restaurant painting. It also is kin to the fake trees that, in miniature, are found inside elaborate and irrational aquarium environments. The paintings recall the vicious medieval world made beautiful by art that we see in the work of Pieter Breughel (1525-69, Flemish). They also recall the decayed landscape of South African artist William Kentridge (b. 1955, Johannesburg) and São Paulo painter Oscar Oiwa (b. 1965, São Paulo, Brazil; Oiwa will have a solo exhibition in this museum opening October 14, 2006). The work sometimes includes wraiths that float through this world, ghosts in irridescent nightgowns that seem like escapees from Japanese manga. The title suggests the work of Fraqncisco de Goya, another visionary who saw his society crumbling and the horrors of the Napoleonic wars. Cheung, like Goya, casts his doubts over the power of reason to channel human activity by showing us a possible outcome of its lapse.

Cheung graduated from central Saint Martins, 1998, and the Royal College of Art, 2001. He has been selected for what is widely regarded as one of the most important exhibitions in the UK art calendar, The British Art Show 6. Occurring every five years, it will tour for one year starting at the BALTIC Center of Contemporary Art organized by the Hayward Gallery. This is one of several works by Cheung recently acquired by Stephane Janssen.

Zeitlin has over twenty years of museum experience as a curator and director. She received her A.B. and M.A.T. from Harvard University and has conducted graduate work in art history with a specialization in Asian and Pre-Columbian art. She has taught art history in these areas and contemporary art at Cornell University, Bucknell University, and Virginia Commonwealth University. The focus of her curatorial work is the relationship of art to social issues and the interface between art and science. She has curated exhibitions of video installations by Francesc Torres, Mary Lucier, Terry Berkowitz, Rita Myers, and Bill Viola. Her recent exhibitions include Contemporary Art from Cuba and Art Under Duress: El Salvador 1980-Present. Zeitlin served as the U.S. Commissioner to the 100th anniversary Venice Biennale in 1995, curating Bill Viola: Buried Secrets, which toured nationally and internationally.