1000 Yard Stare

Chimera Angles

‘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 seeing beyond.’

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