Now thou art an O without a
figure: I am better than thou art now; I am a fool,
thou art nothing.
King Lear, Act I, Scene IV
Fu-On Chung describes his paintings as expressions of the idea of “foolish camp,” a phrase that blends the concept of the fool (a figure who questions authority through absurdity) with the frivolity, ephemerality and excess of camp. Chung characterises this painterly methodology as “playfully and willfully antagonistic,” querying and subverting the hierarchical structures of taste, style and cultural refinement. Camp’s elevation of irony and intentional inversion of received (modernist) categories of beauty offer numerous opportunities to upend traditional power structures, as the archetypal figure of the fool has always done. By locating his practice in the zone of overlap between these two cultural concepts, Chung performs the role of such a being, holding up a mirror to the foolishness of the status quo.
To this end, Chung deploys a range of visual references, including video games and film, media that constantly break and relocate the frame, treating the edge of the image as a scrolling, mobile window whose contents are volatile and capricious. The resulting works share these characteristics, performing a strange, alchemical dance between representation and abstraction, figure and ground, subtlety and flamboyance. For Chung, the performative nature of camp also translates into a concern with the act of painting itself, and the experiential baggage carried by the process of putting brush to canvas. This too is a display or production, a self-conscious externalization of the creative process that is only one step away from being made ironic through the upended aesthetics of camp.
In Imagined Time, a red arc incongruously reminiscent of a rasher of bacon floats serenely in a luminous field of neon green and yellow. Above, a band of rippling blue lines lends the painting a languid, Hockney-esque air; below, a pattern of bricks, cells or pixels fades into the seething yellow mass. If this lower area is read as a floor beneath the viewer’s feet, they are teetering vertiginously on the precipice of some uncanny, otherworldly plunge. Elsewhere, in the ambiguously titled Hang with Me, the same yellow-striped field of safety-vest green is recontextualised as a wall, forming the backdrop to a writhing mass (or is it a writing mass?) of tangled black marks. Their rhythmic spontaneity owes something to both the controlled, dexterous mark-making of Keith Haring and the scrambled, frenetic scratches of Cy Twombly. Hang with Me confronts the viewer, challenging them to decode its impenetrable cypher. The marks oscillate between a flattened, modernist picture plane and an illusion of depth, hanging indeterminately in a painted un-space that seems poised to blink out of existence at any moment.
Brimming with quixotic energy, Chung’s works extend an invitation to a zone of uncertainty, irony and dreamlike ambiguity. Their scale and physicality envelop the viewer, tending towards the status of environments or stage sets, theatrical backdrops that intimate to them that they may, in fact, be the performer. Perhaps, the painter seems to say, they too can here act out a foolish role, stumbling unbidden into a capsized type of wisdom.