The Soho Weekly News
"Ching Ho Cheng: A Conversation"
By Jaakov Kohn
In narrow legal terms, Ching Ho Cheng is a "stateless" person. The son of Chiang Kai Shek's last ambassador to Cuba, Ching was born in Havana in 1946. There isn't a trace of Cuba in him. Strictly New York and the Cosmos at large. Ching is an old friend, yet curiously, we never talked much about his art. Survival, a place to work (half-way warm, if possible) always seemed to have greater immediacy. There were shows in Europe, good reviews but minimal sales. Shared workspaces at best, never the privacy so direly needed. During the recent freeze, one of Ching's "studios" came to mind. A hole in the wall with the temperature inevitably ten degrees below the weatherman's.
Then, last year it finally happened. Sales in Europe and the first one-man show coming up in New York. (Gloria Cortella, Inc., 41 East 57th Street. January 29th-February 18th.) At long last, with Ching serenely and blissfully settled into a suite of rooms in the Chelsea Hotel, feverishly at work in preparation of his show, he and I finally got around to his work.
JK: How would you describe your paintings?
CHC: It is a way of seeing. It is so hard to describe. It is a very personal view of the universe. I keep seeing it everywhere. I can't escape it. It's energy. I see it in a streetlight. I can see it in an oil slick on the road. I can see it in a peach pit. I can see it everywhere. For me painting is a very spiritual thing. It is the most spiritual thing I do.
JK: The act of painting?
CHC: The planning, the thinking. It's like building a pyramid. Everything goes into building the pyramid. Everything goes into building the art that I see.
JK: Have you always felt that way about your paintings?
CHC: Ever since I was six years old. I had been painting since I was six and I stopped painting after I went to art school. They made me feel that it was all pointless. So I stopped and didn't do anything for years.
JK: Cooper Union?
CHC: Yes, it was a nice school, most of the professors were very hip. They would say to me "Go home and paint. There is nothing we can teach you. You should have the freedom to paint whatever you wish. When you do something that makes you happy, bring it back and then we can talk about it." As a result I spent a lot of time doing nothing.
JK: What role did drugs play in your artistic development?
CHC: I guess the most outstanding example is mescaline. Feeling and seeing a great sense of order in everything. Also getting the most incredibly innocent awareness of things. It was profoundly religious.
JK: Do you paint when you are high?
JK: Have you ever tried?
CHC: Yes, but I found that I do my best work completely clear and as fresh as possible. I find that after a few hours it is best to stop if your hand is getting heavy and you ruin everything.
JK: Do you have that control?
CHC: I have to. I have done so many bombs. It is an extravagance that one cannot afford.
JK: It that consideration, that pure logic, always there?
CHC: It is always there. It gives the body a lot of leaves, a lot of vacations, but it also makes sure it all gets back. Back to the fort.
JK: When you say that you started to paint at six--have you ever compared styles? Then and now?
CHC: Yes, they are remarkably similar. I was painting Aztecs and pyramids, suns and moons. All those symbols.
JK: Have you been affected by traditional Chinese art?
CHC: The ancient Chinese art. To me the ancient Chinese paintings are so extraordinary for their vitality. I am relating to it more and more every day. I can conceivably see myself, perhaps in some distant time, doing nothing but Chinese calligraphy. I admire it so much.
JK: Is it all self-taught? I mean Chinese calligraphy.
CHC: It think all art is self-taught.
JK: I am talking about something as precise, as disciplined, as Chinese calligraphy.
CHC: It is totally based on an expression, a feeling that is so abstracted, so in harmony with the movements of the body, a grace, a feeling of being centered. You must be very centered to do calligraphy.
JK: What was your schooling?
CHC: My parents used to force me to go to Chinese school every Saturday, the way Jewish kids used to Shul. I had to study Mandarin and I used to hate it. With a passion. The idea that I had to go to school all week long and then on Saturday morning to Chinese school simply incensed me. At that time, though, I knew a lot more Chinese than I do know now. Now I can write my name, China, America, love, flower. That is just about it. That's why they get up in China at 4 in the morning. That's when the head is freshest, at dawn. They walk around, drink tea and then do calligraphy for an hour or two.
JK: Do you consider assuming that discipline a possibility?
CHC: I don't know. I might have to find my own vocabulary to do it. All my paintings, I don't find them really, in terms of their symbology, related to any specific culture, except that it has a great deal of feeling for many different cultures. I feel very strongly for the Navaho, the Zuni, the Hopi, the Tibetans, the Egyptians. I feel all their energy.
CHC: I guess in my early work. If someone might see it, I think Tibet might come to mind.
JK: When you say early work, what period are you talking about?
CHC: I would say 1969-1973. From then on my work has changed completely. It is striving for simplicity and subtlety and new expression. Once I was attracted by "Epic" painting, but now that does not interest me. I find great beauty in very simple things. The way the Japanese arrange flowers. Just a few leaves and a flower. That is art connosseurship. That is more interesting to me than before when everything had epic proportions, a story with manifold implications.
JK: Is that an artist or a school of painting that you feel a kinship to?
CHC: I feel very strongly about my Chineseness even though I feel very strongly about my Americanness. I feel about my work as a Westerner and a Chinese person and I think it must look that way. To get back to external influences--there is an Austrian painter--Dieter Schwertberger. I feel as strongly about his message as I do about mine. He is a good painter.
JK: Is there a stylistic kinship there?
CHC: Our styles are as different as the Orient is from Western Europe. It is very difficult for me to express this in words since words are not my metier. I also like Vali's work very much.
JK: How do you feel about Hieronymus Bosch?
CHC: I think Bosch will always be a contemporary. In fact, I find a lot of painters today to be his prehistoric predecessors. I don't want to talk about them--at least now while they are still alive.
JK: Is there anyone else among the "masters" you relate to?
CHC: I think Tchelitchew's "Hide and Seek" painting, which is in the Museum of Modern Art, is a masterwork.
The Soho Weekly News, January 1977
JK: How do you relate to Kandinsky?
CHC: I like Kandinsky very much, but he is not one of my favorites. Of that period I prefer Klee, Miro.
JK: I did not have "liking" in mind. My question is do you relate to those people?
CHC: I relate to Goya, to Egon Schiele.
CHC: No, too decorative. Not gutsy enough.
JK: What is it you like about Schiele?
CHC: It is very painful, but it is so extraordinary because it is such high art. When one deals wit a subject matter like his, it can be very easy to be maudlin--like Kaete Kollwitz. So much
pain on a piece of paper that it gets maudlin. Schiele doesn't get maudlin. He is so graphic. He was such an extraordinary draftsman.
JK: What strikes me about your paintings is that they bring to fore a high quality of airbrushwork. I have never seen anything of its caliber.
CHC: That's very heartening. I don't know anyone working in airbrush today who uses it the way I do. I would be very amused if suddenly a whole crop sprouted.
JK: How do you relate to the relatively recent change in your financial situation. How does this affect you?
CHC: It's given me a greater diligence to attention, without the panic of production. I can spend more time on a painting, lovingly, without worrying about producing to keep myself from starving. Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-hah.
JK: How do you relate to the Art Superstructure--Galleries, sales, commissions, etc.? Where glory is spelled in $$$$$.
CHC: I think money corrupts anybody.
JK: Has it corrupted your work?
CHC: No. I am only capable of putting 100 percent in and if I can't put in 100 percent it looks like 10 percent. Than I tear it up and throw it away. I never let it out of this house because I hate ugliness, something badly done.
JK: Any thoughts on modes, taste, preference?
CHC: I think that an artist who is really obsessed, (and who is the only kind of artist that interests me), keeps expanding the vision as the money expands to fit the possibility of realizing what he imagined on an even more ambitious scale, deserves it. Those who don't can drop dead. Money corrupts, that's really true.
JK: Perhaps my vision is a bit jaundiced, but all too often I have seen where the material aspect of success totally obliterated the artist's creativity.
CHC: Yeah, it happens all the time. That's why I say you really know when an artist is giving his all is when he is obsessed. Because if he is really obsessed, he is totally driven to it. He just has to. All the artists I really love were obsessed.
JK: Do you deem this a possibility as far as your future is concerned?
JK: No, corruption?
CHC: No, because I don't think of myself as a complete person unless I paint. To me my paintings are my testicles. If I didn't paint, I'd feel castrated. Because I feel really strong when I do something that I think is beautiful. It makes me feel very strong inside. If I couldn't do it--it's like cutting my balls off.
JK: Do you feel the same way about tattooing? Do you consider it an art?
CHC: Yes. I do. I think it is an intimate, erotic art expression.
JK: What are your plans?
CHC: There are a series of new paintings that I want to do. I haven't been able to do them as yet because I had to finish the work for this show. I also want to start working mural size as soon as possible because some of the ideas I've had depicted small, have been only small in scale because I was working in such small places I couldn't do it big. The way bloodsuckers feed on blood. I feed on money and the more money that I have the bigger I work. If I were a millionaire, I'd be working in spaces larger than Times Square.
JK: Is size a relevant criteria in the art world? Does the concept "Bigger is Better" hold here too?
CHC: No. Perhaps in the art-business world, but certainly not in the art world. After all, Vermeer is as great as the Last Judgement by Michelangelo. Size has nothing to do with it.
JK: Isn't it a fact that quite a few artists fall prey to this concept?
CHC: Yeah, and too many collectors do, too, but that is the art-business scene. It is not the process of making art and it never should be but there are always philistines.