“Each painting is the product of a slow meandering journey
the painting and I take together…”
By Jennifer Nelson, WTP Feature Writer
Amy Cheng was born in Taiwan and raised in Brazil, Oklahoma, and Texas. She received a BFA from the University of Texas at Austin, and an MFA from Hunter College, City University of New York. She has exhibited her paintings nationally and internationally; her work is held in a number of corporate and public collections. She has completed a number of public art commissions including projects at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport; the Howard St. ‘L’ Station in Chicago; the Cleveland Street subway station in Brooklyn; the 25th Avenue subway station in Brooklyn; the Lambert-St. Louis International Airport MetroLink Station; the Jacksonville International Airport; the Slauson bus station, Los Angeles; traffic box coverings in downtown Odessa, Texas; and the Valley Regional Transit Station in Boise, Idaho. She received a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship to Renmin University, Beijing, People’s Republic of China in Spring 2017, a P.S. 122 Painting Center Fellowship in New York City for a ten-month residency in 2011–12, and a Senior Lecture/Research Fulbright fellowship to Brazil in 2008. She has been awarded two New York Foundation for the Arts Painting Fellowships, and an Arts International travel grant to China. She is a Professor in the Art Department at the State University of New York at New Paltz.
Nelson: Your oil paintings, featured in WTP Vol. V #8, bring up visual references to planets, stars, fabrics, and maps. Often, you use brilliant colors, repeated patterns, and intricate layering of space. Please comment on your inspiration for these works, whether they be the cosmos, travel, materials, nature or something other.
Cheng: I have always been inspired by travel; I can claim to have set foot on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. Each time I go somewhere I feel recharged. I don’t understand how it works exactly: some influences are overt, like when I began to incorporate plant life forms—leaves, fruits, flowers, succulents—after spending six months in Brazil in 2008 on a Fulbright Award. Although the bigger, more profound changes come about more slowly, subtly, and subconsciously.
Nelson: Can you elaborate on how your style has changed over the years? In your early work, such as the Monumental Fruit series, you use subdued colors and a simpler structure, while in later paintings you focus on complexity, intricacy, and ornamentation. How and why did this change come about?
Cheng: The Monumental Fruits I painted in the 1980s were my first series of what I considered “mature work.” They look very different from my current work, but structurally they have a strong affiliation with the mandala paintings I am currently making: both series feature a central, iconic, volumetric form. One of the things that took me away from painting fruits was my strong affinity to pattern and ornamentation, an affinity I rediscovered when I went to Turkey. The Islamic use of abstract, geometric forms, and their persistent use of repetition really speaks to me. (Full disclosure: in college my artwork involved a lot of repetition—dots, stripes and dashes.) The Monumental Fruit series was highly influenced by my travels to Europe, specifically looking at Old Master paintings, and they are the exception; my natural lean is toward strong bright colors.
Nelson: In your more recent works, you use layering and repetitive patterns, employed with extraordinary precision, especially as to the medium of oils. Can you address these painting techniques, as well as others you use?
Cheng: My paintings look a lot more precise when you see them in reproduction because the images have been reduced so much. When seen in person the paintings are very handmade, full of irregularities. I use a compass to make circles and a ruler to draw straight lines but otherwise it’s all eye-balled. Most people are surprised when I tell them I don’t plan out the paintings. Each painting is the product of a slow meandering journey the painting and I take together; we travel with no set destination, and no preconceptions of where or when we will arrive. That is why each painting is so individual. The compositions are similar, sometimes identical, but each painting is distinctly itself.
Nelson: You have two full-time jobs: one as a professor at the State University of New York, New Paltz and the other as an artist. How has teaching influenced you as an artist?
Cheng: I think teaching has made me a better artist. You can’t tell students what to do in class and then, while in the studio, ignore your own advice. But, seriously, teaching largely uses a different part of my brain—the more analytical part—and a very different part of my personality—the more performative part. My painting self is mutely intuitive; she doesn’t use words and she barely “thinks” in the conventional sense of the word. For me painting is a physically embodied and intuitive activity—the less I think, the better. I try to convey this strange fact about art-making to my students. I tell them that thinking is overrated; that they will get farther if they simply “do”; I urge them to be spontaneous, to follow every little impulse—that it is a mistake to think the brain the smartest part of their body, that the real intelligence lies in their gut—that’s where the term “gut feeling” comes from—because it links to your wisest, most experienced, most subtly perceptive self.
Nelson: You were born in Taiwan and raised in Brazil, Oklahoma, and Texas. Your paintings have influences from the East, West, and Middle East. Can you comment on how you blend aspects of these cultures in your art?
Cheng: My entire art education was Western; I came to Far Eastern and Middle Eastern art later. But it is something I have given a lot of thought to. This past winter/spring I spent six months in the Far East, four of those months as a Fulbright scholar teaching painting at a university in Beijing. I gave some lectures while in China, one of them titled “How I Reconciled My Western Art Education with an Asian Visual Sensibility,” where I traced the two very different paths taken by Eastern and Western art. Western art has been entirely dominated by Ancient Greek Classicism, which was revived and recharged in the Renaissance. Western art emphasizes the individual; it is, so to speak, about the hero. Whereas Eastern and Middle Eastern art, loosely speaking, are outgrowths of two religions: Buddhism and Islam where the individual is subsumed in society. These societies, for their own reasons, embedded much of their art in pattern, repetition, and ornamentation. Maybe it’s bred in the bone, but I feel more comfortable within the Eastern matrix. My current artwork is about the mystery of worlds within worlds; they are not about me, and they are not earthbound.
Nelson: You’ve said that you wouldn’t have been able to become an artist if you’d spent your whole life in Taiwan. Can you elaborate on this, and how exactly coming to this country has influenced you as an artist?
Cheng: Choosing art as a vocation is a luxury. I was living in Texas when I told my mother I intended to study painting. She said to me, “Amy, you can’t be an artist. We are not rich enough for you to be an artist!” It is a fact that it is much harder to be an artist in countries like Taiwan, Brazil, or China. I tell my students how lucky they are to be living in the United States, where there are so many artist residencies, and art-supporting foundations including non-profit art venues. There are also a lot of museums, art centers, and viable commercial galleries. A huge country like Brazil only has two, maybe three artist residencies, whereas the United States has dozens! I am not saying that American artists don’t struggle to make a living; we do, but here, if you work hard, if you persist, it can be done.
Nelson: I was impressed by your public art projects, including the mosaic mural at Jacksonville International Airport in Florida and the faceted glass windscreen at the Cleveland Street subway station in Brooklyn. Can you comment on the importance of public art projects for you? And your role as the artist in their actual implementation?
Cheng: I got into public art by chance, but I am so lucky that I did. Public art is a growing field in the United States and it is a field where you can actually earn money from doing commissions. Most of the public art projects you see are the result of a competitive process: Requests for Qualifications are sent out and artists apply. Most, if not all, governmental commissions convene special art juries to select which artist gets the award.
I design public art proposals using the visual vocabulary I’ve invented in painting. For me making a painting is a slow, groping process. It takes time to produce the designs for public art, but the process is less personal, generally not as difficult. The pleasure, for me, comes from translating my work into different mediums, different materials—glass, ceramics, mosaics, nylon, concrete.
Nelson: In the spring of 2017, you were a visiting professor at Renmin University in Beijing, China on a Fulbright scholarship. How do you think this experience will inspire you in future art work?
Cheng: I really can’t answer this question because I am still in the beginning stages of unpacking the experience I had in China, Taiwan, India, and Japan, the countries I visited. Ironically going to the Far East made me see that my artwork may be too strongly influenced by Eastern and Middle Eastern art; I feel the need to add ballast to the Western aspects of my work, to rebalance the mix, so to speak.
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