ARTS MAGAZINE  "Ching Ho Cheng"

By Gail Stavitsky

Ching Ho Cheng's recent torn paper works are powerful, sensuous evocations of earth's ephemeral mysteries. To create these variously scaled abstract pieces (entitled Grotto), Cheng applies iron powder to torn paper which has been sealed with waterproof layers of gesso, mat medium and modelling paste employed to create a sense of relief. He uses a special catalyst to begin a lengthy chemical process of transforming the iron into rust. The paper is soaked in water for days and dried: it then becomes a hard surface. Freely controlling the process by deciding when to remove the paper from the wash, Cheng may resoak it in order to obtain the desired surface and textural coloration. He can manipulate a much more viscous surface with the smaller works and hopes to achieve a greater impasto with the larger torn paper pieces, which have a tendency to break if too heavily laden.

Cheng had begun experimenting in February 1986 with pastel earth colors applied to torn paper. He decided that the end result lacked depth and richness: "It was only colored paper." Cheng continued his quest after a trip to Mexico in June which renewed his long-standing interest in ancient cultures. Inspired by "this ancient timeless quality to the land and the ruins" subjected to the natural process of erosion, Cheng began Grotto. He worked for about three months before obtaining any results, evolving his present system through trial and error. Cheng has observed that the rust produced is ferric oxide which is used "to make a lot of the burnt siennas and earth colors. Instead of using these pigments that are already manufactured, I make it myself directly on the paper surface... It's a very natural process."

Cheng regards this transformation of iron powder into rust as an "alchemical process." Grotto is permeated with "the generative and regenerative mysteries of the earth which in ancient times people thought of as imbued in one symbol, for instance, the Great Goddess or the Great Mother." Grottos and caves are time-honored symbols of the womb of Mother Earth. This ultimate female principle is suggested in Cheng's pieces by their gestalt. Most of the works in the series, including Earth Angel, are torn in a roughly circular configuration and encompass curvilinear shaped negative spaces evoking genital forms or mouths of caves. The grotto-like character of these pieces is enhanced by their relief surfaces evoking ossified rock formations and by their usual placement directly upon a white wall which activates the positive and negative forms. Projecting slightly forward, the pieces cast shadows and possess a sculptural presence.

Cheng was involved with Abstract Expressionism in the 1960s as a student at Cooper Union. Afterwards he deliberately emptied his mind of this training in order to find his own artistic identity. From the 1970s onwards he has employed paper to create a mythopoetic art dealing with the cyclical nature of existence. The catalyst for Cheng's first torn paper pieces in 1982 was an accident. Tearing up a drawing that he did not like, Cheng suddenly saw the potential for "something new." The "something new" that Cheng developed over the next few years is represented by three earlier works in the exhibition, The Veil, The Muse and UFO (all 1986). In counterpoint to the earth-oriented Grotto, these three dissonant pieces evoke the cosmological mysteries of the heavens--the concept of "infinite, unknowable space." The Veil is a monumental black and blue piece whose title refers to God's rending of the veil covering the holiest part of the temple in Jerusalem at the moment in which Christ was crucified, opening the way for mankind's salvation. This elegiac title, suggested by a poet friend, alludes to Cheng's organic concept of death as "the physical self... going into spirit" as well as his dualistic working method. The destructive, "lightning, split-second" act of tearing paper paves the way for the creation of a work of art. Cheng's tears have split open the entire composition, creating unbridgeable rifts activated by the expanse of the white wall upon which the piece is hung. The fractured, disrupted character of the torn paper is enhanced by the inclusion of a hard edge graphite shape evocative of Cheng's interest in the archaeological fragments.

In contrast, the tears of the recent Grotto pieces, largely internalized, do not violate their integrity. The circular or oval configurations. of many of these works and their internal tears are "signs of completion," of totality. Unity is maintained even in a piece such as Grotto VII, which is composed of non-circular forms torn from two juxtaposed sheets of rectangular paper. There is no sense of forms striving for completion in this recent wall-size, bipartite piece whose richly variegated sponge-like surface--evocative of Cheng's trip to Egypt--reflects his increasing confidence and freedom with the oxidation process.

The holistic character of Grotto also derives from the provocative dualities embodied in the pieces. These works are the product of chance and deliberation, creation and destruction, and the natural and the manmade. Paper is subjected to the destructive, immediate, artificial act of tearing an then by contrast to a slow, organic gestation as the iron powder oxidizes and rust is created. The formation of rust is in itself an unpredictable, dualistic process of build up and break down. Even the title of this series evokes a dualism--a grotto can be a natural or manmade structure.

Cheng's masterful torn paper pieces defy categorization. Neither drawings, collages, paintings, nor sculptures, these pieces "exist somewhere at an intersecting point" between the four mediums. Ching Ho Cheng has truly blazed a new trail with his torn paper works in which process and metaphor mirror each other as affirmations of the transient, cyclical, creative and destructive aspects of existence.


Arts Magazine, January 1987