I feel quieted in Emily Cheng’s studio — to the point where I wondered, afterwards, if I’d even posed questions. A fountain is gurgling, and she has set out beer and snacks. The paintings invite reflection more than commentary. I had visited her studio more than 10 years ago, and at the time felt that she was a painter whose work fell outside the buzz around contemporary art; looking back, I feel as if she has been gently challenging us for years.
The forms in her paintings are suggestive of the most primary elements: the landscape; the body; religious iconography. Large circular and floral forms are often positioned symmetrically on her canvases. These forms radiate outward into planetary orbs, tendrils, and vertebrae-like networks. However, many passages are stranger, more imaginary, and less regular than one might expect: dreamy, painterly occurrences that can be bodily and abstract.
The paintings have a lightness in tone and surface quality, but they are forceful in their suggestion of movement. They seem to chart energy channels, and push us into spaces that can’t quite be articulated or described.
Cheng lives and works in New York City. She received her BFA in painting in 1975 from the Rhode Island School of Design and studied at the New York Studio School for three years. She has had solo exhibitions at The Bronx Museum, Winston Wachter Fine Art, and Bravin Post Lee Gallery, New York. She has also been the subject of solo exhibitions at the Shenzhen Art Museum, Shenzhen, China; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei; Hanart Gallery, Hong Kong; the Ayala Museum, Manila, Philippines; Zane Bennett Gallery, Santa Fe; Byron Cohen Gallery, Kansas City; and Schmidt Dean Gallery, Philadelphia.
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Jennifer Samet: What was your introduction to art and painting? Did you start drawing or making art as a child?
Emily Cheng: I can remember that as a small child, I was happy if you parked my stroller in front of a wall with peeling paint. There are family photographs where everyone else is looking at the camera, and I am looking down at the snow. I was mesmerized by the different colors of the sparkles in the snow. These things still fascinate me — when I see special paint splotches on the sidewalk, I record them on my cellphone.
In the fifth grade, I started oil painting and looking at images of Van Gogh, Gauguin, Manet. I also saw abstract painting for the first time: de Kooning, early Guston and Pollock. My father loved Western painting, so art was always part of my everyday life. There was no question of what I was going to do.
JS: You got your BFA from Rhode Island School of Design but also studied at the New York Studio School. I remember that Nicolas Carone was an important teacher for you. Can you tell me about him?
EC: Yes, Nick Carone was the teacher who had the most influence on me. He talked about the image. All of his students heard overlapping and different things from him. What I heard was that there is a potential for unseen things — an implied image — in painting. There is a possibility for that image to have power, which can resonate long after you’ve stopped looking at the painting.
I also remember Leland Bell, as a visiting artist at RISD, giving a lecture on a Chardin painting. Before his lecture, the Chardin was just a still life with a little dog. As Leland talked about it, it became a superhighway running in different directions, with all kinds of passages and ways to move through it. It opened up and became three-dimensional — dynamic.
I studied with Leland and Elaine de Kooning for a summer session in Paris. We spent a lot of time in museums and we would be trailed by museum-goers, picking up interested people along the way. Leland was a beautiful enthusiast of the joy of paintings. He spoke about artists who were not so popular, like Raoul Dufy.
Bell opened me up to structure in painting. When you go through a Chardin with Leland, he is not talking about composition, he’s talking about structure. Structure is bones, the spine; composition is where you place and arrange things.
If you want to think about structure in drawing you can think about Giacometti. Giacometti was all about making the unseen connections spatially connect. Things have many relational points. That also influenced how I thought about the body when I left school.
JS: How does your work relate to ideas about the body?
EC: A lot of my work has to do with how we reside in our bodies, how our bodies relate to gravity, and how we can (or cannot) connect to the universe. It is about the subtle body.
A lot of what I’m painting doesn’t exist in the visible world. So, to capture its enormity and its suggestive power, you have to be able to go into your imagination, which is not always cooperative. You pull out what you can from it. I want to tap into some kind of energy that can’t be named, or that hasn’t been visualized. Silence is the moment when I see the next step, or an image waiting to materialize.
That is why I don’t listen to music when I’m painting. The way I explain it to my students is that when you have music playing in your studio, you have two artists in the room. But one artist is already articulating much more clearly than you are. It’s the same if you listen to books on tape or the radio. I understand that some people need to be out of their thinking minds. I get that. But I’m not thinking much when I’m quiet. I am listening to being.
JS: Your work can also have a map-like or diagrammatic aspect. It also often plays with symmetry — with geometric forms and symbols radiating out from the center. Can you talk about that?
EC: I’m very attracted to diagrams and maps because I like the correlation between going through something in your mind, and the physical activity of moving through that space. When you look at a map of a city you are running a system through your mind. Then you go into the city and you relive that template, that configuration.
The interest in symmetry goes back to the experience of being dyslexic, and it has to do with the standing body. Recently I was amazed to find that even in my paintings from the early 1980s, I was thinking about the body, symmetry, and Chakra-like points. I didn’t know anything about chakras back then. I was just creating a point system for the standing body. Then I took this whole other odyssey of working with planets, centers, and arabesques that were very non-symmetrical and gestural. Now I find myself back in symmetry.
I see the paintings as templates for the body, and if they were asymmetrical, they wouldn’t feel like the body. They are also about bodies in the world and universe. About ten years ago when I was working on a book, I was flying back and forth to China. There was something about flying halfway around the world, so many times per year, that I started thinking about what that meant and felt like — being above the world, detached from the planet for a short period of time. Every religious tradition discusses death as being above the world, or out of the world. It gives you a long vision of history, life, the planet.
JS: Recently, you have been exhibiting frequently in China. Can you talk about how your work is tied to your Chinese-American identity, and how that may have evolved over your career?
EC: Growing up in the suburbs as an American, with Chinese parents, I accepted everything for what it was. In the 1990s, people started talking about their roots. I thought it would be very interesting to go back into Chinese culture and examine it. I found some Buddhist cave paintings that were really outside of my own experience. This began my studies into Chinese art.
As far as identity goes, when I started traveling to China, and reading sociological studies of the differences between Americans and Chinese, I would observe certain characteristics, and think, “Actually, that part of me is very Chinese.”
I began reading Buddhist and Taoist texts. After I got over my aversion to Confucianism’s sexism, I thought Confucius had a lot to contribute as well. He is very interesting socially and politically, in context with Lao-Tzu.
I was looking at a lot of Buddhist art, Silk Route painting and court figure painting, which is very different from the tradition of ink painting. Lately I’ve been looking a lot at Chinese landscape painting. In the past, I never thought landscape painting had anything to do with my own work. It is so much about the lexicon of a particular style of brushwork. Now I feel really lucky to have that link to another tradition — one in which the vastness of landscape can be expressed through the gesture of the mark.
I found out six years ago that I am related to Lin Yutang, the 20th-century writer. He wrote annotated translations of Lao-Tzu and Confucius, as well as his own ideas of living. I love how Buddhism addresses the very mental aspects of the self-consciousness, perceptions of reality, community, and one’s role in the world. The Tao gets you to look and think about yourself as a physical body in flow with the greater universe. So, together, it is quite rich.
I try to separate the institution from the original texts or ideas. In working on my Charting Sacred Territories project, I wanted to trace all this rich imagery that we have inherited from the world’s greatest religions and to show the complex interconnectivity and genealogies of each religion — branches of sects, denominations, and groups. There, you can’t help bump into the whole structure of institutions. That’s what they are. And the institutions are often at the root of our problems today. But the devotional and philosophic aspects of religion, at its best, are beautiful.
It was the same thing that made me gravitate to certain Renaissance paintings when I first traveled to Europe. Some paintings are just above and beyond others. Some paintings of Madonna and Child are sublime, while others are run of the mill.
JS: So you tie the success or sublime quality in painting to the devotional interests of the artist? That is so interesting.
EC: I can’t prove it, but yes. In some cases, the painter tapped into ideas larger than the commission. Maybe they saw the universal qualities of the mother and child and were able to express it through form in an inspired, touching way. It is difficult to talk about, because art historians generally approach Renaissance painting in an iconographic way. That is how they are trained. This discussion includes concepts of auras, and things that can’t be seen, but only felt. Our rational minds resist that, but a fresh eye can see it.
I will say that when a painting clicks, it is something akin to that devotional feeling. It is something greater than the self. That is when it makes the ultimate connection. Not every painting does that. That’s why, for me, a painting that works is so beside the point. If it doesn’t have that click, that energy, that force, then to me, it is nothing. It’s just another painting that works.
I don’t start with a concept; I start with a feeling. If that feeling is prevalent enough, it will manifest into an image. These are things that are not easy to paint, and it’s not part of our daily experience to think about them.
I have never thought of my work, or any artwork for that matter, as a reflection of our society or our culture. To me, that’s just like adding more junk into the junk. I am probably making these paintings at a particular time and place for very particular reasons. I am always thinking about the timeline from 20,000 BCE to the present. I want to be in the dialogue of all time, and not just my time.
JS: You utilize a vocabulary of different kinds of painterly marks: lines, dots, arabesques and other gestural brushstrokes, even drips. How do these come together in your work, and how are they related to different painting traditions: Eastern and Western?
EC: I have recently returned, in my work, to joining the templates and the systems with gestural marks. For a decade, for me, gesture only existed in drapery and drips. I started working again with gesture through ink on paper. I was doing a residency in DaWang, China, and the artist who had the studio before me left a lot of cheap paper and black ink.
I had never really thought I had the right to work in that medium, because I am Chinese-American and don’t write calligraphy or even read the characters. But I was staying in a fairly remote place, in the mountains just above a little village. It gave me the freedom to pick up this ink and paper and experiment.
At first I started making drawings of statues — early, small Greek and Cypriot bronzes I had seen at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. I was trying to find a way into these mute figures, these strange little statues behind glass. I felt that they retained a lot to offer us in this contemporary time.
By painting them, I found a way into their being by loosening up the gesture. Ink led me to freeing up the mark and feeling that it could become part of my repertoire again. That was something I hadn’t done in decades, really.
Now I think of gesture and line as something that can work together, in and around each other. Drapery in Renaissance painting is so tactile. In Chinese figural paintings, the lines are about spirit. The figures walk with swirling drapery flowing behind. It is a way to animate and bring life to the figure portrayed. So it’s the difference between the eye moving through form and space tactilely and sensually, and the felt spirit moving through line.
With line, you can move through the painting at breakneck speed. The dots slow the eye down, like an ellipsis, a pause, so that you are not doing a “drive-by” on a painting. We are conditioned to size things up very quickly. When you can slow the eye down, it is always a good thing.
I’ve always loved drips in painting. Drips announce that it is a painting and bring the viewer into the experience of the moment it was made. That visceral connection is a joy ride.
I don’t feel like I am building on one tradition, because that would mean being an adherent. I have an allergy to that. I am finding my way in the dark. If I find a few little things to hold on to, along the way, I’m very happy for the experience. I’m open to many kinds of traditions and practices, which overlap. Finding the connections between them is what interests me. We don’t have to pick and choose one thing, or be monogamous in that sense. Life is too short.