Houldsworth Gallery, London

Art Monthly, Issue 276, May 2004

The painting's support is badly made - just a hardboard panel with ill-fitting strips of wood glued to the back, the kind of thing you find in art-school skips at the end of the academic year. But the image on the panel is made ... well, how exactly? Certainly there is a base layer of collaged newsprint: streams of share prices from the Financial Times make up portions of a landscape. Across the top the sky is a thick, raised layer of acrylic paint whose surface change is so abrupt that the rest of the image must have been masked off when it was applied. This acrylic has been sprayed on: bright, artificial colours blend together in a sickly nuclear sunset.

So far, so crude. But on the newsprint there is an image of a waterfall floating in an indeterminate space above the surface of the stock-market digits. It is a cheaply sublime scene, like computer-generated fractal Romanticism. And this is where the mystery begins; the image is photographic in origin but it is as smooth and dense as ink. And it has a mirrored symmetry too, which gives the whole picture a Rorschach, dreamlike quality. Perhaps the image began as a photocopy, its carbon released with chemical solvents and floated onto the newsprint, then reworked with an airbrush and black ink, the photo-based imagery blending seamlessly into painterly effects. It is deeply enigmatic; as a small and unassuming object, it appears to have been artlessly knocked together, and yet it looks like the outcome of a virtuoso image-making performance.

The work in question is Colliderscape by Gordon Cheung, and it is the first in a series - number two, a similar work, hangs alongside it. The title hints at the multiple, hallucinatory visions induced by kaleidoscopes, but aggressively avoids such childlike harmony and beauty. The different representational systems at work in the painting - news media, share prices, photographic imagery, landscape traditions, psychological triggers, etc - make it a complex, fractured artwork. This is the collision that the title refers to: a representational collision made urgent to Cheung during his recent residencies in Pakistan and Japan that influenced his combinations of saturated colours and soft black inks.

Another work of Cheung's is Machine Dreams. This piece, larger and on canvas, has been created with a similar, naggingly ambiguous technique. Here a blackened tree stands before a modernist housing block in a scorched desert. The regimented lines of the flats have become liquid - bent as if in a vast heat haze. The wizened tree has a feeling of the hyperreal about it, the sky is made up of long, vertical strips of paper, while the foreground pool reflects a different sky altogether. Compared to previous works by Cheung, where his collaging technique has been so fiddly and precious that it has begun to resemble embroidery, these new pieces are as bold and cold as a Warhol screen print. And where they could have been slick and soulless, instead they are awkward, uncomfortable: irritating as a splinter, but beguiling nonetheless. If the exhibition's conceit is an apocalypse not through destruction but the evolution of a globalised techno-pop culture, then, yes, this is what it might look like.

Matthew Radford's new paintings are more straightforward in their apocalyptic references; three of his four works depict mushroom clouds. But he does also employ an unusual painting technique, laying some kind of meshed grid across the painted canvas and applying a regular pattern over the image - imagine Roy Lichtenstein's technique, but with square dots rather than discs. Yet the Pop artist developed his methods to mimic a specific printing technique, and hence the dots defined the image. Radford's squares do not mimic digital pixels; while their effect may suggest a video screen, the grid is actually an overlay, an obscuring veil. Emphasising this point, the paint has pooled between the squares, as if the heat of the depicted nuclear reaction has melted the screen. One of the paintings, Hood, makes you want to squint, so effectively is the blistering atomic light portrayed by the oil paint. This leaves you in no doubt that Radford's screen device is certainly not digital; oil paint, after all, is prized precisely because of its supremely flexible, analogue nature.

But what is this screen for? Adding little to the mushroom clouds, it begins to work only when repeated on another image, Roads I. This depicts a busy motorway in high-contrast black and white, perhaps photocopied from a newspaper. The heavy chiaroscuro suggests a flash of light, the reportage style suggests a story, the gridded squares suggest disintegration or vaporisation, and the association with the mushroom clouds suggest that this is the instant of the nuclear apocalypse. Mundane and melancholic, the work does something very odd: it appears to be painted in the past tense.

Kenny Hunter's interest is history: the current stories that we tell about the past. His sense of history is riddled with half-remembered personalities, artworks, and media images, and he uses these oblique references to bring meaning to the contemporary figures in his sculptures. Feedback Loop is a maquette for a monument. Typical of Hunter's work it depicts a figure painted in a flat, single colour - in this instance mid grey. The head is bowed, one arm raised straight up in a fist. It's a familiar pose, but where and when do we recognise it from? Perhaps many places and many times, but one instance is Mexico, 1968, the Olympics. Tommie Smith, the black US athlete who won the 200m, stood on the podium and bowed his head and raised his arm in a Black Panther salute, an act for which he later received death threats, as well as being thrown out of the US team and the Olympic village, and hounded out of sport for good.

While the pose is the same, Hunter's figure is not Smith, but a young Asian woman with a small bunch of flowers in her clenched fist. Perhaps a Chinese athlete, then? But she has chunky, retro headphones on - a Chinese astronaut? No; the rest of the girl's outfit suggests that she is Japanese, with her cutesy pigtails, overly baggy jeans, and miniature koala bear hanging onto her bag strap. The flowers, the raised arm: it's meant to be a celebration, but it has become a show of solidarity. And if Tokyo's teenage girls - the notoriously slavish followers of the most fickle fashion trends - can raise a salute to collective empowerment, Hunter suggests that there is a mute hope for all of us in the face of this apopalypse.

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