New York

Dominique Fung, The Largest and Most Formal Meal of the Day, 2021, oil on linen, 78 × 94".

Dominique Fung, The Largest and Most Formal Meal of the Day, 2021, oil on linen, 78 × 94".

Dominique Fung

Eugène Delacroix’s Orientalist tableaux once thrilled European viewers with their veiled courtesans and dusky harems; today, those paintings are understood as, among other things, imperialist propaganda. As in most arenas of modern life, the forces of hegemony and their attendant gazes—male, white, Western—that shaped the canon have come in for reckoning yet again, with various results.

Dominique Fung’s imagery tweaks historical painting in a number of sensuous, seditious ways. Her visually knotty and pleasantly perception-scrambling canvases antagonize both colonialist conceptions of Asian art as well as any form of passive viewing. “It’s Not Polite to Stare,” Fung’s surrealist fantasia here, absorbed and repelled those canonical gazes. Staring may be rude, but her pictures render us powerless to do otherwise. What other option does one have when confronted by her mesmeric scenes, such as The Largest and Most Formal Meal of the Day (all works cited, 2021), a delirious, wall-size rendering of a decadent feast in which a lobster lolls on a table’s edge near a suckling pig, which grins as a cleaver cuts into its flesh? Fung’s art rewards gawping.

The show floated the phenomenon that staring produces an extrasensory energy that can be felt by the observed party, altering their emotional state. To be looked at is enervating, as anyone who has engaged in a video conference this past year and then immediately had to lie down with the curtains drawn can tell you. But as incidents of anti–Asian American and anti–Pacific Islander brutality have ticked up with horrifying regularity, Fung’s work grapples with something more insidious: the othering gaze as a precursor to violence.

Fung is partial to the writings of scholar Anne Anlin Cheng, whose feminist analysis of “the yellow woman” finds this subject “culturally encrusted . . . simultaneously consecrated and desecrated as an inherently aesthetic object.” Fung’s work visualizes Cheng’s theories, rendering decorative wares—teapots, fans, urns—keyed to ethnic associations with disconcertingly erotic attention. Things stand in for people: Whenever humans appear, they are inanimate comely figurines, their faces obscured by cages or glimpsed through translucent fans, or are portrayed as pieces of classical sculpture ogling pagodas and urns.

Fung casts her canvases in a uniformly honeyed glow—buttery ochers and golds that hearken back to the hazy palette of Orientalist paintings, which poorly envision the more sun-baked corners of the world. What Fung’s works don’t share is those hoarier pictures’ fealty to a fixed perspective. Here the fields warp, collapsing various styles within a single image, as in Will you keep singing?, a cabinet of curiosities—including caged vessels and fungal candlesticks growing through furniture—rendered against a background that fuzzes out into AbEx daubs. The fragmentary quality can be disorienting, a jumble of memory and historical record, an abstraction of diasporic dislocation itself.

The voyeuristic tendencies of the museum were hammered home by Fung’s first room-size installation, containing ornate birdcages suspended from the ceiling, their occupants a ceramic menagerie: stubby chain-smoking teapots and shapely jars with skin scalloped like scales or feathers. Are they strange and pretty songbirds or, much darker, concubines? These bibelots literalize the idea of objectification, of women relentlessly sexualized into ornament and finally transubstantiated into pure decor (the artist’s earlier versions of this theme have been even more literal, depicting vases with clitoral features or wearing wigs). Acquired from estate sales and online auctions, their provenances either unknown or otherwise undisclosed, the cages are proxies for the scads of Asian artifacts in institutional collections: alluring, anonymously Eastern, dispossessed. Such items bring to mind the facile costume exhibit “China: Through the Looking Glass,” at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2015. The show’s organizers claimed to critique Orientalism but ended up mostly reinforcing it.

Fung’s installation is more effective, if not exactly advocating for the decolonization of cultural institutions, then expressing the ways their organizing principles can drain and dehumanize. This approach illuminates the processes by which a real person becomes a ghost. Yet Vice, a midsize painting, startled in its directness. No tricks, no obfuscation, no honeyed sheen. Just a picture of a cigarette-smoking jadeite urn at the end of its rope, spent butts gathering at its base. Fung renders the glazed finish of the porcelain carefully—entire identities are extracted onto lustrous celadon. But here the pot’s luster is dulled, fading into a murky green-black ground.