Sunday, July 12th, 2015

Visionaries and Visions: Retrospectives of Tseng Kwong Chi and Ching Ho Cheng

Tseng Kwong Chi: Performing for the Camera at the Grey Art Gallery of NYU
April 21 to July 11, 2015
100 Washington Square East (at University Place)
New York, 212 998 6780

Ching Ho Cheng: The Five Elements at Shepherd Gallery
April 7th through May 9th, 2015
58 East 79th Street (between Madison and Park avenues)
New York, 212 861 4050

Tseng Kwong Chi, New York, New York (Brooklyn Bridge), 1979 (printed 2014). Gelatin silver print, 36 x 36 inches. Courtesy Muna. Tseng Dance Projects, Inc., New York.

Likely the first American artist to prominently feature the selfie, Tseng Kwong Chi has already become an important figure in the history of contemporary American photography and performance history, even though he died of AIDS in 1990. His work is on view at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery. And Ching Ho Cheng, not quite as well known in New York art circles, deserves equal status and recognition for his remarkable psychedelic paintings and torn-paper collages, which maintain a startling contemporaneity — this despite the fact that Cheng, too, died during the AIDS crisis in 1989. His work is currently being shown at Shepherd Gallery, on the Upper East Side.

The two shows demonstrate the fact that, early on, the art of Chinese expatriates in New York was not fully recognized, but this failure was not because of a lack of accomplishment. Indeed, Tseng and Cheng formed a nucleus of a small, but remarkable group of Chinese artists working here during the 1980s, including sculptor Ming Fay and multimedia artist and author Mary Ting. Their activities, begun well before the mania for Chinese art arrived, reflected the budding realities of being an Asian artist in the city’s varied cultural context.

Of the two, Tseng has received the most publicity as an originating participant among the Asian-American avant-garde. He also successfully connected with the downtown scene in the 1980s, becoming a close friend of graffiti artist Keith Haring. His black-and-white photographic art, in which he poses in a Mao suit alongside bohemian comrades or the world’s wonders, is a much a performance event as it is a documentary record.

In New York, New York (Brooklyn Bridge) (1979), Tseng offers a startlingly forceful image: he is seen jumping straight up into the air, towering over the graceful if slightly worn lines of the Brooklyn Bridge, one of the great icons of New York City. As usual, Tseng wears his Mao jacket and dark sunglasses, His left hand, clenched into a fist, is raised high above the bridge — or so it seems, given the low perspective he uses in shooting the photograph. At the same time, he holds in his right hand the shutter-release cable that enables him to photograph himself.

As a picture, New York, New York (Brooklyn Bridge) is a visionary romance invoking the city and bridge, but it also announces the extent of Tseng’s ambition. It is clear here, and in Hollywood Hills, California (1979), in which the artist assumes a smart pose, looking upward on the left and wearing reflective sunglasses, with the famous Hollywood Sign in the background at right. Not only was Tseng posing as a prophetic tourist, he also was asserting the right of a Chinese immigrant to participate in the exclusive, fully American rite of passage through the appropriation of historical icons.

The situation for Cheng is comparable, but also different. In the late 1960s, he made psychedelic paintings: highly detailed and patterned works that feel like suspended music, more or less inspired by the great rock melodies, and the great guitar solos, of the period. One work in gouache and ink on rag board, Queenie Study (1968), feels like a spiral slowing moving downward, away from the viewer. The descent is accomplished through circles of red and black bands — dotted with myriad spermatozoa — which ring more and more tightly as the imagery moves toward the center of the composition.

One untitled work from 1987 consists of torn rag paper colored with iron oxide. A leaf-like piece of torn paper, coppery and regularly dotted with depressions that resemble craters, is placed upon another copper-colored sheet whose angle of placement can only be seen at the bottom of the composition. Cheng commits himself to imagery of more or less uncontestable beauty.

Cheng’s determination to create something memorable, even something exquisite, resonates in profound ways. An untitled canvas from 1988, created with iron and copper oxide, as well as acrylic paint, is stunning in its range of colors from gray to black to a fiery copper hue. On the upper left is a black egg-shape, done with acrylic; it balances the differing background colors, which are not directly legible as imagery.

A much earlier work, from 1979, is a very subtle study of a window’s shadow on the wall. Painted with gouache, it marvelously suggests impermanence. The windowpanes are rendered as being on an angle, with a single band or bar separating the two sheets of glass. The band and background are painted a gray-blue, and as a study, the painting is wonderfully satisfying, a kind of image we often see and remark upon, but never capture because of the mercurial nature of daylight shadows.

If Tseng and Cheng were merely pioneers as Chinese artists during a time of remarkable cultural change, their work would be less valuable even as it documented, both abstractly and figuratively, the spirit of that time. But these artists are highly intelligent; moreover, they are technically accomplished in their chosen mediums. Tseng’s photos are memorable in formal terms, just as Cheng’s paintings and torn-paper collages remain in the thoughts of his viewers at least partially for their excellent execution. One hopes that the lives of these two men will remain secondary in interest when the actual works are looked at and read for what they are: sophisticated artworks that hold the viewer’s attention.

In fact, Muna Tseng, sister of the artist, has remarked that writers may focus “too much” on her brother’s death; the same might be true of Cheng as well. This makes sense, as death played no role in her brother’s art, or in Cheng’s. Both men celebrated life. Tragically, both men were stricken young. That doesn’t mean, however, that their work is immature, or that they produced only small bodies of work. Now, Tseng and Cheng are carefully presented to the public by their sisters (Muna and Sybao Cheng-Wilson), who do their best to increase awareness of each artist’s achievements. Time will determine whether the work will be considered major; it is this writer’s belief that Tseng and Cheng will be included among the very best artists of their time.

Ching Ho Cheng, Queenie Study (Panel II of Queenie Triptych), 1968. Gouache and ink on rag board, 30 X 30 inches. Courtesy of Sybao Cheng-Wilson.
Ching Ho Cheng, Queenie Study (Panel II of Queenie Triptych), 1968. Gouache and ink on rag board, 30 X 30 inches. Courtesy of Sybao Cheng-Wilson.