In the work of his current show, The Last Wilderness, at the Ralph Pucci gallery in Los Angeles, Spencer Fung shares his emotional response to visiting the Sequoia National Park in California. “My purpose there was to see the largest tree in the world — General Sherman — a giant sequoia over 84 metres high, the base as wide as the length of a London double decker bus,” he says. “It is over 2,000 years old, and still growing. You can see on its trunk where it has been scarred and burned, but it has survived in the most noble way. It filled me with great hope, and confidence in the resilience of nature: it has seen so many generations of humans, endured drought and fire, and survived.”
At the centre of his methodology is Fung’s enjoyment of the surprises that come from working with natural materials. For this series, he mixed Jurassic clay from the Dorset coast with Chinese ink and melted snow water from the forest: “I discovered that the slate-grey, Jurassic clay has a pearl like iridescence,” he says. “I love its weathered consistency and three-dimensional quality.” As with his previous body of work, My Abstract Landscape, Fung also became fascinated by the indigenous lichen, and created six paintings inspired by the forest’s florescent green wolf lichen. “Lichen is the forest’s wallpaper. It can live up to 5,000 years, outliving even the sequoias. Its colour is imbued with meaning and beauty.”
Two large murals form part of the show, depicting a forest, and the horizontal trunk of a felled tree, created out of the same mix of ink and clay, applied by hand directly to the wall. An inscription above the bold horizontal profile of the fallen trunk – almost sculptural in its scale and texture – quotes the words of Henry David Thoreau, which the author wrote in 1891 on witnessing the felling of a majestic white pine near his home: “This noble tree ‘rushes to embrace the earth and mingle its elements with the dust.’” “I was moved by his words,” confessed Fung. “While painting this tree’s uprooted form, there was a point when I didn’t know how to carry on; I felt too emotional. I could almost feel the tree snap and fall.”
Over 30 original works are arranged cinematically in Ralph Pucci’s lofty arts space, beginning with depictions of the sequoia trunks, before zooming into smaller studies of their needles and cones, then widening out again into landscapes. Fung used brushes, his hands, and fallen ponderosa needles to create the paintings. When installing the show in the gallery, he was stunned by the beauty of the Californian light: “The light in LA is incredible,” he says. “It is crisp, uplifting, beautiful and transformative.”
The Last Wilderness runs from 1 April - 1 November 2019, at Ralph Pucci, Los Angeles.
Words: Ollie Horne
Photos: Carmen Chan