Studio Visit: Gordon Cheung

"Most abstraction wasn’t really talking about the wider history of art, humanity and civilisations. It was an insular type of dialogue about the medium itself." Using spray and acrylic paint, sand, digital algorithms, and pages from the Financial Times that he has been collecting for more than twenty years, Gordon Cheung's multi-layered works add a new dimension to our traditional understanding of what painting is, and can be.

Photographs © Tim Smyth.

Following the success of his recent exhibition Unknown Knowns at Edel Assanti, the London-based artist discusses how and why he makes his artworks that explore myriad themes, including the mechanics of power, geopolitics, and the birth of modern capitalism.

You’ve said that your aim is to “expand the language of painting” and that you use collage as a way to “simulate” painting. What do you mean by this?

When I was at art school in the mid-nineties, it was during the digital communications revolution. The internet was becoming available–cyberspace, digital frontiers, information superhighways and so on. For me, this was a really fascinating moment that I wanted to capture through my work, through this fairly archaic form of art: painting. Most abstraction wasn’t really talking about the wider history of art, humanity and civilisations. It was an insular type of dialogue about the medium itself. I wanted to sidestep that by removing paint and then substituting that with what I was compelled to react to, which was the stuff of the everyday, maps and the stock listings of the Financial Times–information. So I funnelled this into the language I was creating. It was this idea of questioning what sort of landscape we now dominantly exist in. The landscape I felt I existed in was the concrete jungle and this information landscape on a global scale.

How did you work with materials in those early years?

By shredding newspaper I created materials from the everyday–what I felt was the “pigment” of information. I would collage maps and newsprints together to create works in their own right, and go to the photocopying machine, and while scanning a work, move it, which created smears. From those smears that looked like paint marks, I’d cut them out and collage them together to form virtual paintings. It was a kind of ground-zeroing of the way I thought about painting. From there I began to look at the structure of what it means to paint–that meant questioning brush strokes, flatness, formal concerns that were parallel to the dominant intellectual discourse at the time, which was framed around the death of painting. I was trying to resolve that in my mind.

And you still work with pages from the Financial Times. How?

The works are initially constructed on a computer. I’ll create spaces in the composition where I don’t know how they’re going to play out. Sheets of stock listings in the Financial Times are coated with a special varnish that allows me to print onto them. The image on a computer is gridded up and each of those grids is printed and then jigsawed back onto the canvas. And then, because it’s an imperfect process, there are usually some scratch marks that need to be reprinted. So you end up with patchworks of the image, but I like the patchwork because it’s like pixels. The work is marked out and areas I’ve left open are spray painted or painted in. You’re grappling with the pictorial tensions of the work and fighting a little bit against the composition you set out for yourself in order to create more visual interest, certain visual weights, lightness or heaviness. You’re pushing and pulling at the language to try and get it into an interesting form.

You also play around with this idea of the glitch which involves, in essence, re-organising pixels using an open source algorithm. How does this inform your work?

The glitch is a mistake or what we think of as a mistake in the technology we use. How it visually manifests itself is as a distortion of the image. My fascination with it is, in that moment of the glitch, it reveals the technological or mechanical reproduction, the breakdown of the illusion of the image, and the focus on the screen. So what you have is this multi-dimensional experience.

In a previous interview you talked about how your work “moves in and out of physicality versus the illusion of the image”. How does the tension between the physical and virtual play out through your work?

There’s a lot of physicality in my work with the surfaces–the sandy textures and how they’re spray painted in such a manner that they almost dematerialise into these moonscape forms. Or the way certain paint marks are made by building up stratas of newspaper and paint, and then slicing through that to create slithers of paint and newspaper that can be used to construct palm leaves. So there is this constant relationship between an illusion of something and the way it’s been made. From a distance a painting will look like a conventional painting, so you have the illusion, but as you get up close to it, it starts to break down into its material components and you’re literally deconstructing it, asking questions about how it is made, trying to perceive how that surface has been constructed. You’re also hopefully being encouraged to deconstruct the interwoven narratives.

The themes in your work are complex and wide-ranging–from the mechanics of power and geopolitics to technological communication systems, “shifting empires and civilisations”, the “techno-sublime”, and the birth of modern capitalism. What do you want to convey through your work?

The financial crisis of 2008 was the catalyst for me to look at the development of capitalism and civilizations. I was trying to comprehend how something like that–the financial crisis–can happen on a global scale. It led me to research subprime mortgages and the complex financial instruments that were being used to produce concentrated wealth. And then, of course, the corruption in that system as well and the way our governments have allowed those people to get away with essentially global fraud. I also looked at the history of financial bubbles, and that led me to the first recorded bubble–over the sale and trade of tulips during the Dutch Golden Age. That led me to look at the evolution of capitalism all the way through to Communist China. A lot of the exhibition at Edel Assanti was centred on the South China Sea and the artificial islands, China’s new silk road and its Belt and Road initiative [to boost trade and economic growth]. The works I’m making now continue that theme–the re-ignition of the silk roads.

Research seems to play an important part in your work. How is your work multi-layered, both in a literal and metaphorical sense?

When you’re doing research, it’s constant. You do it because you’re interested in something. Eventually, the build up of interest becomes so strong that you’re compelled to construct the work, creating a conceptual armature from which you can start fleshing out its visual form. You push forward, refining the composition, the pictorial tensions, and the conceptual rigour (or not). You’re trying to shape the emotional spaces in the work as well. Art is, for me, going back to that feeling of being compelled to reflect something about our human condition in the civilisation that we exist in. Constants in the work are existential questions of what it means to live in the way we do. How that manifests is through the threading together of all these interests I have. Ultimately, the works are expressions of my perspective, but I hope there are enough multiple dimensions within them that anyone can bring their own narratives and ideas and engage with the inner conversations they might have through the surfaces and symbols I create.

Photographs © Tim Smyth.