Chinese-American artist Emily Cheng is known for vibrant, abstract paintings and drawings made up of elaborate circular structures and quasi-floral symbols that represent complex spiritual and philosophical systems, with a pastel palette and minimalistic, symmetrical compositions reminiscent of the early-20th-century abstract painter and mystic Hilma af Klint.
Beginning in the 5th grade, Cheng developed her life-long love of painting. She graduated with a BFA in painting from Rhode Island School of Design in 1975 and later attended the New York Studio School for three years and spent a summer studying in Paris under Leland Bell and Elaine de Kooning. Since graduating, she has travelled to China many times, including in the 1990s when she discovered Buddhist cave paintings and began studying Chinese art (including Silk Route painting, court figure painting, and, later, Chinese landscape paintings) and Eastern thought (especially Buddhist and Taoist texts, as well as the teachings of Confucius and Lao-Tzu).
Looking to organise the rich imagery from the different religions, traditions, and ideologies she was studying, Cheng started 'Charting Sacred Territories' (2011), a year-long project that consists of multiple drawings and paintings, through which she explores the intertwined visual symbols of multiple sects, denominations, and groups. As a part of the project, the artist created the large-scale paintings Eastern Traditions—Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism (2011) and Western Traditions-Judaism, Christianity, Islam (2011). Across the two artworks, she assigns six religious traditions a third of each canvas, depicted in one large circular graphic symbol and colour scheme each. Taoism is represented by three rings encasing each other, the outer painted with an optical waveform in sea blues and greens, the middle ring resembling a circle of pearls, and the inner section filled with a pale blue spiral. Islam is depicted in a complex geometric design in lemon yellow laid over midnight blue, with a pale yellow circle and a small blue dot at the circle's centre point.
For Cheng, the project was a turning point in her practice. It was a development that, as she explains in her 2015 interview with Ocula Magazine, happened naturally. 'I don't think you can be involved so intensely as I was in the world of religious images without in some way having it affect your work', she explained, while acknowledging that 'Other thoughts of course were also factors, as is usually the case when a creative shift is occurring.'
Working in a mixture of acrylic, oil, and Flashe (a fast-drying, matt medium that is vinyl-based and pigment-heavy, similar to gouache and tempera), Cheng has continued to develop the themes explored in 'Charting Sacred Territories', using luminous colours that evoke different aspects of spiritualism and mysticism. In the painting Medusa's Eye (2014), a cloud of baby blue and a ball of royal blue hover mesmerizingly over a background of lime green, while in the painting Amazing Journey (2014), calming shades of apricot and pink play off a vivid red background, with spirals of blues, greens, and purples adding accents of energy, proving tranquillity and vitality are two sides of the same coin.
Cheng has exhibited widely in the United States and in Asia, in both solo and group exhibitions. Recent solo shows have been held at Ille Arts, Amagansett (2017); Shenzhen Art Museum (2015); Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong (2015); Zane Bennett Contemporary Art, Santa Fe (2013); Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei (2011); and at Louis Vuitton Maison, Hong Kong (2010).
Cheng has exhibited in group shows including at Art Basel in Hong Kong (2017); China Institute, New York (2014); Museum of Chinese in America, New York (2010); MASS MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts (2010); Museum of Contemporary Art, Shanghai (2009); and at the Guangdong Museum of Art (2008). She has been awarded a Pollock-Krasner Foundation grant (2010); New York Foundation for the Arts Artist Fellowship (1996); Yaddo residency (1995); and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship (1982–1983).
Cheng lives and works in New York City.
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...
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...
Emily Cheng, a Chinese American artist based in New York, is the subject of a major solo exhibition at the Shenzhen Art Museum in September 2015.Emily received a BFA in painting from the Rhode Island School of Design and then attended the New York Studio School. She has been the subject of numerous solo exhibitions in America including at...