Ching Ho Cheng at Shepherd & Derom Galleries
September 25th to November 15th, 2008
58 East 79th Street, between Madison and Park avenues
New York City, 212-861-4050
This exhibition of Ching Ho Cheng’s work, a small retrospective, showed viewers why his art had both critical respect and popular acceptance in the 1980s, before his tragically early death from AIDS at the end of that decade. Cheng came from a distinguished Chinese family; he was born in 1946 in Cuba, where his father served as a diplomat. Moving to New York five years later, Cheng and his family lived in Kew Gardens in Queens. After studying painting and sculpture at Cooper Union, Cheng spent some time in Europe but mostly remained in New York. He lived and worked at the famous Chelsea Hotel, and socialized at Max’s Kansas City, where he numbered among his friends the singers Debbie Harry and Bette Midler. In keeping with the times, Ching produced highly detailed, psychedelic paintings when he first began producing work in the 1960s. He soon changed, however, to studies of stars, subtle gouache visions of sunlight and shadows as they appeared in his studio, and perhaps most spectacularly, torn paper works that beautifully function as collages and abstract compositions. Cheng’s meticulous craft helped him create works whose precise imagery resulted in highly successful works of art.
Despite its small confines, the gallery offered a broad view of Cheng’s art. One introspective, very beautiful work, Untitled (“Window” series, 1982) consists of gouache on rag board. A painting of middling size (30 by 40 inches), this work renders a window shadowed against a studio wall. The shadow of a thin divider between the top and bottom of the glass is painted, with the darkest part of the shadow occurring on the far left and growing more faint as it moves to the right. On the far right it is impossible to tell the shadow apart from the general condition of light, a circumstance due to Cheng’s extreme skill with the brush. In the “Window” series, we sense an exquisite craftsman at work; but we remember, too, that Cheng was a sharp critic of his own efforts, reconciling to the wastebasket pieces that he felt did not succeed. This work clearly did.
According to Leanne Zalewski’s brief essay, Cheng turned to making torn-paper collages following his brief epiphany regarding form when he tore up a paper piece that did not suit him. The artist saw that he could bring about special effects by tearing his materials, which resulted in a style of resolute, close-to-pure abstraction. In The Certainty of Blue IX (1984), Cheng put together a striking group of materials, including charcoal, graphite, and pastel on torn rag paper. In the bottom of the collage, he offers a dark-blue expanse, which could be mountains or sea, above which an abstract organic form, created from the white of the paper itself, rests. The top of the images is black, with its edges defining the rough, rounded shape of the white area. On the top right, there is a silver gray form, whose upper limits compose a rectangular shape, while its lower edge, resting against the curves of the white area, is torn to fit against those curves.
One of the last methods Cheng used included metal that, once it oxidized, existed as a rough surface of rust whose compelling alchemy gave his audience a remarkable exterior to consider. The magic of these pieces results from contrasts in color as well as memorable differences in the finish of the paint and copper. We see it in the very strong triptych of 1988, an untitled piece of work that has three panels; each of the canvases is worked over with iron oxide and acrylic. In all three cases, the gestalt is the same—a large, rounded shape much like a boulder, framed by another organic form that adheres to the edge of the boulder and fills the rest of the space to the edge of the canvas. In panels I and II, we see the rounded shapes colored by rust, with the corresponding framing consisting of black acrylic paint. In panel III, the boulderlike form is black; the space its curves jut into is made up of the luminous gold-brown of the rust.
Cheng was an artist of unsual achievement, whose passing away left his audience bereft of someone who had begun to work in highly effective ways. No doubt the artist was a creature of his times, but his technical expertise stands out in contrast to much of the informal work being made while he was alive. Cheng therefore convinces on a double level—as a creator of unusual originality, and as an artisan whose technique neatly meshes with his images.