Dominique Fung Upends Persisting Fantasies of Asian Womanhood in Surreal Paintings
Portrait of Dominique Fung by Maxim Ryazansky, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.
In Dominique Fung’s paintings, baby blue hues dance with pastel pinks to create, at first glance, exotic fantasies of Oriental bliss. Like the works of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Jean-Léon Gérôme, Fung’s scenes entice with nude women reclining among porcelain vessels. However, closer inspection reveals stray knives, impaled fruit, and dismembered limbs; the mirage dematerializes.
The young Brooklyn-based artist was initially drawn to Dutch and Flemish paintings while studying to paint in the 17th-century academic style. “Being raised in Canada, that’s all I had seen,” Fung said in a recent interview. “Essentially, it was all that I aspired to be through the lens of a Eurocentric art history upbringing.” She began to diverge from these Western ideals after seeing the way that Asian art was curated at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) in New York, and major institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The latter presented art objects and artifacts in a way that severed them from their historical significance.
Dominique Fung, Exotic Fruit Haul, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Nicodim Gallery.
Asian artifacts and antiques are central to Fung’s art practice. She meditates on the origins and functions of these objects, which are traditionally relegated to the margins of Orientalist paintings. Her latest body of work, now on view in “Relics and Remains” at Nicodim Gallery in Los Angeles, follows solo exhibitions at Ross+Kramer in New York and Taymour Grahne in London. Created in New York during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Fung’s most recent works grapple with themes of Orientalism and Asiatic femininity in somber tones, enticing her audience with ominous surrealism, rather than playful fantasies.
Last summer, at the opening for her 2019 show at Ross+Kramer Gallery titled “Wash Your Corners,” Fung was reminded of the limited spaces in which she, as a Chinese-Canadian woman, is safe from Orientalizing gazes. “Somebody came in and was like, ‘Oh wow, you look like a doll,’” Fung recalled. “Literally, this is what my work is about!”
Although Fung has depicted porcelain dolls, it is through her vases that she interrogates the way women of the Chinese diaspora are perceived. An Alluring Vase (2019), for example, depicts a light orange vessel adorned with peaches in the style of traditional Chinese painting. An angular chasm, topped by a clitorial peach, cuts through the front of the vase as fluttering rose petals swirl around the vessel.
Fung’s piece recalls Anne Anlin Cheng’s 2018 book Ornamentalism, in which the theorist compares the “yellow woman” to a Ming vase. As Cheng wrote, she is “simultaneously consecrated and desecrated as an inherently aesthetic object.” Cheng coined the term “ornamentalism” to describe the phenomenon in which ornately decorated objects—teapots, vases, and ceramic foo dogs—come to signify yellow skin and flesh. Whereas Edward Said’s Orientalism articulates the Western conception of the East as perpetually inferior and exotic, Cheng’s ornamentalism lays a feminist framework for the yellow woman in particular. Illustrating Cheng’s assertion that the “ornament becomes—is—flesh for Asian American female personhood,” and blurring the distinction between figurative and still life painting, Fung renders the trauma of being fetishized.
Often, ornamentalism and objectification converge in Fung’s work to meditate on Western reactions to Asiatic womanhood. In Ultra-Realism (2019), for example, severed legs and breasts hang like carcasses in a meat processing plant. Nonetheless, the body fragments are idealized—hairless and unblemished by wrinkles, fat, or stretch marks. In the foreground of the painting, a yellow carpet draws our attention to a pole, on top of which a single, oversized eye peers out. It’s unclear whether the eye, with its omniscient gaze, reduced these women to body parts, or if it’s watching us as we visually consume the dismemberment.
“Oftentimes, I feel like the Asian American experience is that people don’t see us as whole—as a full person with complex stories,” Fung said. “I think a lot about the way the Western lens has portrayed us, or how they see us, when I’m painting.” Below the meat hangers in Ultra-Realism, porcelain plates and vases are neatly displayed, visualizing the close proximity of Chinese women’s bodies to that of China—both the material and the country. In this painting, Fung simultaneously addresses the space between flesh and commodity that women of Chinese descent inhabit, and the dire consequences of such dehumanization.
Fung began to include Chinese antiques in her work after moving to the United States in 2016 and seeing the way Asian art was reduced and removed from its history in New York museums. “It made me question my place in the world and how I felt in terms of my displacement from my origins,” Fung explained. “Those questions led me to paint these objects, to think about them as witnesses to my ancestral history: what they’ve seen, how they came across the ocean, whether they were stolen or purchased, whether they were highly valued or had no value.”
Dominique Fung, Through the Looking Glass, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Nicodim Gallery.
In her current exhibition at Nicodim Gallery, Fung continues to grapple with the limits of museums as disseminators of knowledge. Through the Looking Glass (2020) takes its name from the Met’s 2015 exhibition “China: Through the Looking Glass,” curated by Andrew Bolton. While it achieved record-breaking attendance at the time, the exhibition was highly controversial for extracting the perceived Otherness of China—its people and its art—to produce chinoiserie fashions.
In Fung’s Through the Looking Glass, a yellow woman cradles a glowing, punctured fish tank as water leaks out of it. She holds a sharp blade in one hand and intently watches the swimming goldfish. This female figure has previously appeared in Force an Exit when Frozen in Time (2019), the title of which alludes to the Orientalist view of the East as stuck in the past. “For me to completely dismantle something is really difficult as one singular person,” Fung explained. “Conceptually, in my mind, if I’m able to stab these holes, either from within or without, I’ll be able to escape the paradigm that I’m in.”
Dominique Fung, Increased Exposure, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Nicodim Gallery.
Dominique Fung, Stay Home, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Nicodim Gallery.
In prior works, Fung has contended with the experience of feeling trapped and analyzed within racial expectations, however, the impact of the observer’s distorting gaze takes a more visible form in Stay Home (2020). When the yellow woman peers into the cylindrical fish tank, a nod not only to Matisse but also his contemporary Sanyu, her reflection fractures. She grows additional features—an extra eye, nose, and mouth—appearing more surreal and monstrous than human. “When we speak about Asian Americans, there’s this sort of veil,” Fung said. “I always feel like we’re being viewed and viewed through this lens where we’re not really being seen.”
Cheng begins Ornamentalism with this question: “Is there room in the dehumanizing history of race to talk about a figure whose survival is secured through crushing objecthood?” Fung responds with a discerning, decorative visual language of her own.