Gordon Cheung’s “Transfer of Power”
C-Project, Los Angeles
Through August 14, 2021
Written By David S. Rubin
“Transfer of Power,” a twelve-year survey of works by London-based British-born Chinese artist Gordon Cheung, is an innovative, intelligent, visually exciting, and provocative examination of global economics, both past and present. Motivated by such events as the Dutch tulip mania of the 17th century, the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to China, the 2008 global financial crisis, the War in Iraq, the emergence of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoins and NFTs, and the current ascension of China as possibly a greater economic superpower than the United States, Cheung is never at a loss for ideas and methods through which to execute them. Opting for a maximal aesthetic that is conceptually appropriate for reflecting the complexities of the information age, Cheung supercharges his paintings with a psychedelic or ethereal palette and multiple layers of materials. His unique procedure is to begin by covering a canvas’s surface with actual pages of stock market listings from the Financial Times, collectively a metaphor for the late 20th century digital and communications revolution, which he coats with varnish. Over this he prints digital imagery that he has manipulated, and then adds spray painted acrylic and textured materials such as sand, dried paint and pumice.
In paintings dating from 2009-10, Cheung employed a triptych format to create large psychedelic landscapes that occupy what he considers to be the ambiguous fine line between utopia and dystopia, meaning that any suggested narrative could unfold in either direction. Populating these vistas are symbolic figures from Cheung’s iconographic lexicon, as in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, where the traditional Christian conquerors are reinterpreted as the greedy Wall Street capitalists who brought down the economy in 2008. In Promised Land (Triptych), a desolate landscape dominated by a barren tree at center, Cheung introduced a tiny figure who would become the primary focus in later works: a cowboy riding a bucking bull. According to the artist, the cowboy symbolizes America’s history of land conquests, while the bull represents the bullish stock market. The image also reminded him of the mythological Minotaur who, as half-man and half-beast, is a perfect metaphor for the predatory banker. The bull rider takes center stage in two subsequent paintings from 2016, Delicate Balance of Terror and Minotaur (study).
Around 2013, Cheung became interested in the first economic bubble in history, the tulip craze that swept the Netherlands in the 17th century, which is also the Golden Age of Dutch painting. At the trend’s tipping point, tulips became so outrageously expensive that the market simply crashed. In small paintings based on Dutch Master still lives of a single tulip, Cheung represents the phenomenon emblematically by superimposing single flowers over printed stock market data, with shadows created digitally. In a number of larger works from 2017 to the present, art historically derived bouquets of various flowers in Chinese vases are situated firmly on flat, open terrain made of pigment and sand. Rugged and durable due to the literal physicality of the dried paint of which they are made, the bouquets represent flourishing economies, yet their bare landscape surroundings and intensely bright backlighting lend a dramatic uneasiness, as if to suggest that such prosperity is only momentary.
In two recent projects, Cheung responds to today’s rapid urbanization of China, where traditional homes are being torn down and replaced by contemporary architecture, and a major infrastructure and trade expansion is underway. Cheung laments the loss of traditional homes in a series of suspended windows based on traditional Chinese designs. Each window is constructed from bamboo and covered with stock market pages from the Financial Times. The other project concerns China’s present day Belt and Road Initiative, which seeks to revive and upgrade the ports along the famous Silk Road that once connected China to the Western world. The visionary painting String of Pearls presents two different landscapes separated by a misty area with a faint horizon line. Occupying the upper section is a moonlit sacred mountain, once the destination of emperors who would go there to validate themselves as divine rulers. The lower region features a topographical landscape based on a satellite map, where the Silk Road trade routes resemble electrical currents connected by ports depicted as radiant pearls. “String of Pearls” is a phrase coined by an American military consultant to refer to these ports, which the U.S. fears are being developed for militaristic purposes as opposed to peaceful ones. To add further to the analogy between the Silk Road and the Belt and Road Initiative, a small boat in the foreground refers to the British vessels that once smuggled opium into China in exchange for silver, which ultimately led to the British takeover of Hong Kong at the end of the Second Opium War.
One of the most effective processes employed by Cheung is known as digital “glitching,” the algorithmic production of linear striations that cause an image to look as if it is eroding or melting. Cheung uses the technique for maximum impact in altering digital images printed on canvas of Thomas Cole’s The Course of the Empire series, where pastoral landscapes appear to be decomposing before our eyes. He similarly distorts a Fantin-Latour floral arrangement, and single tulips in a new series of prints. The process is also at play in Power, Corruption and Lies, a captivating 3-minute video animation that nicely sums up Cheung’s economic theory, that cycles of wealth and power are inevitably subject to peaks, valleys, and potential rebirth or oblivion.
830 N. Highland Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90038