Luise Fong: Universe

3 September – 10 October 1999

Fong specialises in elegant and enigmatic abstract paintings which often suggest the organic, or traces of a human presence.

'My starting points are generally intuitive responses to the world, to my state of mind, and to cultural aspects around me. I'm interested in basic, simple processes and finding poetry in simple things.'

Comprising of a selection of paintings created during Luise Fong's residency as the Visiting Artist at the University of Canterbury, this exhibition at the McDougall Contemporary Art Annex combines themes explored within Fong's earlier work with new concerns for image and space. While Fong's paintings have often been likened to cosmological galaxies, the title she has chosen for this exhibition is instead intended to reflect the intimate sphere of her own life and artwork.

Born in Sandaken, Malaysia in 1964, Fong moved to New Zealand as a child. She graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in print-making from the University of Auckland in 1989. In 1994 Fong was the artist-in-residence at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne and in the same year was the joint winner (with Bill Hammond) of the Visa Gold Art Award. Fong has been included in several important international exhibitions, including Cultural Safety: Contemporary Art from New Zealand, Frankfurter Kunstverein, 1995 and Trans/fusion: Hong Kong artists' exchange, Hong Kong Arts Centre and Auckland Art Gallery, 1996. She has lived and worked in Melbourne since 1995.

Fong's paintings of the mid-1990s were evocative, multi-layered, abstract works which unveiled a rich range of associations. By marking, or 'wounding', the canvas and by using a minimal, restricted palette, Fong alluded to the body's forms, surfaces and tensions. She subtly intervened with the surfaces in a variety of ways by scratching, smearing, splashing and even drilling holes into the works to allude to traces of nature and ghostly reflections of the body. Many of these paintings sought to challenge initial perceptions with what appeared to be holes, actually revealing, on closer inspection, small soft pads made of black velvet. The memory of a near drowning experience during childhood has remained with Fong and still informs her painting 25 years later. The 'blissful feeling', and 'suspension of time and space' Fong associates with this experience is also generated by her physical experience of painting. It is therefore not surprising that water is an intrinsic part of her working process.

Fong's works have also developed connections between cosmology, pathology and the interior spaces of the human body. The 'violation' of the surface echoes the invasion of the body during autopsy and the seemingly molecular forms evoke connections with cellular biopsies, exploratory surgery and disease. Fong's works cast aspersions on the vigour and mortality of the human race and in many ways symbolise the female psyche; the silent spaces within abstract painting emulating the silencing of women within the patriarchal western culture.

Further exploring the connections, in an open-ended and ambiguous way, between painting and the body, her works revealed a desire to connect the mind with the body, the corporeal and the intuitive, as well as an exploration of the binary oppositions of light/dark, night/day, intuition/intellect, interior/exterior, microcosmic/macroscopic and translucence/ solidity. Fong's pleasure in aesthetics, the sense of the handcrafted in her practice and the tangible, multi-layered surfaces allude to the complex relationship between the creative, 'artistic' process and practical, manual application/intervention.

Since 1995, Fong's paintings have become more image-based, coinciding with a heavier application of paint and a strong emphasis on surface and the universal language of painting. She has recently begun to construct images with a strong physical presence, consciously responding to their occupation of (and interaction with) space. Instead of concerning herself with the residue of paint and transparent layers, she is now interested in building up the surface to create strong lines in a more pre-meditated fashion. According to Fong: 'The physicality of making art is very important to me. In fact, I think it is increasingly important, as we head towards a new century and a time when things are increasingly 'unreal', that art and handcrafted objects have a feel of the body on them.' Vital to this process is the expansion of her materials and exploring new ways of working.

The paintings Fong will create for Universe are part of her continued interest in space and the physical sciences, often revealed in the past through titles such as Vulgar Planet and Small Orbit. Her most recent paintings have, through both the process of their construction and their final appearance, explored the natural forces which subtly control life on earth. Works such as Plunge, Sink and System not only consider the constant and unalterable push and pull of gravity in their eerie, distorted surfaces, but were created when Fong deliberately used physical forces in her painting process, tipping, tilting and dripping onto the painted surface to create patterns and effects in a controlled and premeditated fashion. The resultant mark-making is not expressionist, but rather represents an intuitive, if calculated, response to the basic and omnipresent forces of nature.

The University of Canterbury's Visiting Artist programme, supported by Creative New Zealand, has provided a welcome opportunity for Fong to return to New Zealand. Believing that a strong sense of place is integral to her art practice, Fong maintains that she always makes her best work whilst living in New Zealand and expects that the new paintings she will make here will reveal the subtle influence of her surroundings.

Felicity Milburn

This exhibition was held at the Robert McDougall Contemporary Art Annex in the Arts Centre.