- Albert Fung
On Shining Teeth
Updated: Dec 22, 2022
Even though this artist’s statement does address my work in general, I will speak at length on a single piece, called Shining Teeth (Fig.1). My intention is that my discussion of this work will function as a microcosm, leading generally towards my oeuvre. What follows are a series of short essays on various aspects of my work. By tracing the river that flows through my work rather than make the seemingly objective statement “My art is ____.”; I hope to deliver direct observation and, through that, authenticity.
“When is it done?” is a question pointing to the heart of an artist’s intention and sensibility. A better question would be, “At what point is a work “meaningful,” or even, “beautiful”? Cutting to the heart of the matter, let’s ask: “When do we reach critical mass or stray beyond the event horizon?”
My work is meaningful when it rings like a bell. It shocks like the new, and it bothers like memory, like facing what you forgot you never knew. When something I wish would stay buried is instead laid bare, what rises from the ground is Presence. It is my animating force, both pure spirit and wild beast. When you see it, your eyes touch it, and then it is you who is touched; you see it move, and you feel your body sway. My work is meaningful when it is kinesthetic: a sensation of color leaves a taste in one’s mouth; pictorial rhythms land like body blows.
It feels like a miracle. Before it, I dare to fear. Even if it is too much, I will pay. The picture transcends something that you look at and becomes something you look with. Noises turn to melody; we hold strangers suddenly dear. The image seems lit from within. It is like how our lungs fill to say “Aha!” or the way my guts slide when the plane takes off. Even after we leave the ground, the urgency remains. We rise.
I draw with the attention of a lover; I tune my body like a radio. It is more listening than doing. I summon the image from below as though I were kneeling in a river panning for gold. Or, like divining water, I walk through the desert holding a thin branch — tender enough to sway me. Or, like wring a novel with a Ouija board.
My work Shining Teeth presents a symbolic human body that is bifurcated twice into four quadrants. The trees at the top point to the celestial realm; whereas the lower half symbolizes the corporeal aspect of the human. The left/right division represents other dualities identified with human-ness: yin/yang, male/female, sun/moon, ida/pingala, etc.
My use of this bifurcation relates to a game the Surrealists played, Exquisite Corpse (Cadavre Exquis). It could be played with words or images. If playing with pictures, the ostensible goal is to create an image of a human body. This body would be drawn upon a sheet of paper folded into sections. Only one section would be visible at any time; the rest would be hidden behind the folds. Several collaborators would take turns, each drawing one part of the figure on their assigned section. Each artist would only be able to see the part that they themselves drew.
Some painted in pools of paint; some scratched lines. Sometimes the body belonged to a person; sometimes a fish. Some represented their part of the human figure literally; others took a mischievous approach. When unfolded, out came a monster. You might get a chimera-like figure with the head of a woman, the wings of an eagle, the belly of a ship, and feet of clay.
The images do not look much like a person. Still, the mind connects the dots; it assimilates — mends the holes in reality’s fabric— it acquires a new normal. The world where this creature could exist comes flooding in. Looking at the figure is like falling through to another world. We are transported.
What interests me is how this collection of fragments, this Frankenstein’s monster, gains a soul, a Presence. Its incongruence, rather than waking me from the dream, or rather than being strange, is strangely familiar. When you look at the figure’s face, you see your own eyes staring back.
In the lower left of Shining Teeth, there is a representation of a cow’s stomach, a rumen. I had been fascinated by the word, as it pertains to “ruminate,” what I think artists, at their core, do. It’s also what Neil Young or Keith Jarrett do when they solo for half an hour at a time: chewing on the notes, letting what is heard inform what is next played. Hearing and doing somersault over one another, gaining speed until they blur together into a singularity.
I also imagined that the needs of my art required multiple minds, the way a cow needs multiple stomachs in order to process their food. And, like a cow needs internal flora and fauna to break down grass, I the artist need invisible agents to aid the long, slow process of profound transformation.
I process pictures from seemingly incongruous pieces. I make parts and parts and parts: a doodle on a napkin here, a smear of paint there, a drawing I got mad at and tore out the only good corner. My work arrives less from a master plan than from fragments that emerge from the bottom up, fragments that self-organize and wake up.
I imagine all my fragments pinned to my walls or languishing in my drawers like millions of cicada nymphs chewing away underground, growing, waiting for the day they will rise up into the branches to sing as one.
In the case of Shining Teeth, I had this scrap of mylar left over from another picture that I decided to draw on randomly with a piece of graphite that was conveniently at hand. I recognized it as special and kept it tacked to the wall for years. One day, I had an impulse: I scanned it, photoshopped it, printed it, drew on the print, re-photographed it, re-retouched, printed, drew on the subsequent iteration again, again, again… Finally, I glued a pigment print onto the panel and I had a start to this piece.
What you see is not so much what I see but rather my experience of seeing. The presence of seeing emanates from behind the canvas. I am reaching to what lies behind appearance. The light energy flowing from back to front is the true subject of my work. It is this phenomenon that you can ride like a horse, from me to you. As John Berger in his essay “The Limits of Painting” says:
Image-making begins with interrogating appearances and making marks. Every artist discovers that drawing — when it is an urgent activity — is a two-way process. To draw is not only to measure and put down, it is also to receive. When the intensity of looking reaches a certain degree, one becomes aware of an equally intense energy coming towards one, through the appearance of whatever it is one is scrutinizing… To sustain it requires faith. It is like burrowing in the dark, a burrowing under the apparent. The great images occur when the two tunnels meet and join perfectly. Sometimes when the dialogue is swift, almost instantaneous, it is like something thrown and caught.
All my works burrow through this darkness. The light struggles to slalom forth, from behind. It struggles past lines, textures, and other image conditions that tell that light’s story. At the same time, your gaze, your light, careens to and fro, reaching to greet it. The magnetic brightness draws front and back together. We find one another in this waltz.
Seductions and Cold Showers
My paintings are often bifurcated, that is the upper and lower halves (sometimes left/right halves) of the picture look like they are made up of different stuff and may belong to different pictures. At the same time, there is a cohesion between these parts, a haiku-like abruptness where the twists and turns make total sense as a single image.
I present, on the one hand seamless illusion and pleasing harmony. I invite you to enter the painting’s world by positing the authority (and apparent safety) of a (capital “I”) Image. The competing desire is to shatter the illusion, to throw a spanner in the works. For example, I might add representational elements to an abstract image; or I may present an illusionistic space that I add a flat graphic shape to.
When I do this, there is the sense of wrongness or interruption. The effect is akin to watching an actor in a play break the fourth wall to address the audience directly. When I do this, I make you a partner in this waltz. I ask you to dance.
When I interrupt, I am calling attention to the fact that you are looking at a work of art, not an image. You participate in tearing my picture to shreds while we also chase behind the unravelling to sew it back together. My piece Shining Teeth looks like a collage, like many pieces of paper that are glued together, which is literally what it is. At the same time, you could almost squint your eyes and fall back into the dream. It becomes a cohesive picture when you decide to believe.
Two other pieces of mine that do this are my prints Fifteen Restless Riders and Tidbits Like You.
My ongoing brinksmanship between seductions and a cold showers make wrong-ness seem rightly wrong or wrong in a meaningful way. I poke a hole in my picture to let the light in. Because the seams do not line up and are covered in stitches, you find critical pause; you have to consider whether to enter. Dreaming with one eye open leads to an elevated state, higher than either waking or dreaming.
Everything in Its Right Place (Part 1)
A horizon line is prominent in almost all my work. In Shining Teeth it is implied by the shift in color between above and below. However it appears, my horizon line has always struck me as being urgently necessary and always uncannily right.
It divides sky and sea, or sky and land. It represents the far distance, someplace else, beyond. At the same time, even though the sky and the land or sea might change, where they meet is a constant. That infinite + stability is soul-comforting to me. There, in the midst of vastness, is safety.
I guess the gravitational pull of the horizon line latched on to me growing up in San Francisco. There, where the city is built on mountains, you can see where the sky and sea meet almost everywhere you are. Even if that vista is blocked for a moment, I would only need to walk a block, look down a different street, and that familiar reference comes back into view. It feels like home.
Everything in Its Right Place (Part 2)
While my works do not represent the world, my work does imbue or invoke a sense of space upon the painted surface. Distance — near, medium, and far — each feature prominently.
Sometimes the apparent objects squeeze up against the picture plane like a face pressed up against the glass. Other instances, often in the same piece, an object will occupy a cozy pocket in the middle distance. And then, there might appear a sky falling away forever and ever with distant trees or other tiny details perched at infinity’s precipice.
These different apparent distances reflect varying degrees of intimacy and safety. The near field elements are like a kiss: hot, intense, rippling with transgression — desire and fear roughly mix. The middle ground is comfortably familiar, like a friend in a conversational space. And the far distance, where the sky meets the sea is foundational, steady, rooted, solemn.
These distances in harmony make for a world in good order. Where each individual artwork diverges from this order, where the near field is blank or the distance unsettled or obscured; that is where drama lies.
When we experience the sublime, we weep before something other than sadness. When an artwork reaches escape velocity, we awe to the immensity of space; the stars seem absurd — a fearful awe that draws tears. When this deeper truth is at last revealed, it feels like standing before the Grand Canyon. We feel world beneath our feet; and our defenses crumble.
The void calls us to leap into this immensity. An artwork’s illusion shatters illusions. This shattering, this madness truer than real is, as the Joker says, like gravity: “All it takes is a little push.”
I began Shining Teeth to save myself. I was journaling and listening to music obsessively, grappling with something beyond my courage to accept. It made a a numbness, a deafness ringing with memory.
The struggle is not to stop tripping in the dark; but rather to let the tripping lead the way. What counts is not the turmoil, but the vulnerability and willingness that I summon. They are power.
The title derives from the Cowboy Junkies song “Shining Teeth”:
I don't wanna see your shining teeth
Show me your bruised and battered heart
Prove to me that you'll be true
Let me touch the wounds that have haunted you
Share with me the wounds that still haunt you
In my work, when I feel, when I am dramatic, and when I express my desires; I feel forlorn and brace for abandonment. When I leap into the abyss, I fear that no one to catch me, just point and stare.
When I was in graduate school; irony, obfuscation, and gamesmanship were high culture’s lingua franca. I felt that I had to adopt this mode to pass the gates of artist-hood. I felt expressing authentic desires like wanting love and wanting to be connected to spirit would be taken as sentimental and embarrassing. I thought my inclinations made me unloveable, or worse, toxic to you — as though I were too much.
I thought I had to hide, or (as we used to say) mediate, that, conceal it beneath coded language. But, I didn’t. I painted archetypal spirit animals that walked on stilts through mythical swamps, bathed in golden light. I meant that my light would break your heart.
When I presented my graduate thesis exhibition, a visiting artist, David Storey, came to talk to me about my work. I found his work to be funny, something that I in my inadequacy wished my work was. When he referred to my work as “romantic”, I recoiled, asserting that I wished my work were more “ironic”. What he said next surprised me.
He said that art is serious business. That (in my words) pictures touch the core of existence and the limits of awareness. Art delves into the human condition, makes containers for places in the mind that nothing else can hold. States of mind would otherwise be unknowable and un-shareable; and thus unable to sustain life or lend reprieve from life’s trials. What I (and every other artist at last) makes art about: survival, desiring love, yearning for spirit, forgiving the past, and facing death are a big deal. He told me my sense of drama existed because I was open to the gravity of the situation. He told me my feeling was a gift.
In my life, as I have gone deeper within and with others; I saw that, beneath the surface, as Miller Williams says “down where the spirit meets the bone,” we all suffer trauma, shame, fear, and delusion; and we all search for awareness, apotheosis, and transcendence. I continually re-accept that my sense of drama is a gift. My life’s dearest wish is to give it.