By Henry Geldzahler


Photography by William Duke

"Studio Visit:      
Ching Ho Cheng"   Having Mastered a Unique Oxidizing Process, this American Artist Examines Timeless Questions of Creation and Destruction.

An American of Chinese descent, Ching Ho Cheng was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1946. During the mid-1960s he studied painting at the Cooper Union School of Art in New York City, and during the early seventies lived in Paris and Amsterdam, where, in 1976, he had his first one-man show. Twelve years ago Cheng returned to New York and checked into the Chelsea Hotel --the great red-bricked building that has long welcomed artists, writers, and rock stars--intending to remain for two months; he has lived and worked there ever since.

In his tenth-floor studio, just down the hall from his apartment, Cheng allowed us to photograph him at work on the initial stages of a complicated art-making process. He has been creating a body of torn works since 1982, when, disgusted with a charcoal drawing in progress, he ripped it up. "It was as if lightning had struck," he says. "This act affirmed the creative and destructive aspects of nature." In 1984 Cheng began investing the pieces of paper with iron, and has employed this technique since that time.

After hundred-percent rag paper is torn and gessoed, he covers it with an acrylic medium, gray iron powder, and modeling paste. For two weeks he soaks the work in pools of water. The powder rusts and pigment emerges. By changing the water daily, Cheng keeps the oxidation process going and the work becomes richer in color. "Rust is ferric oxide," he explains, "among the most permanent substances in nature. The Egyptians used ferric oxide for pigment and their frescoes are as fresh today as they were when they were made."

Here Henry Geldzahler offers an appreciation of Ching Ho Cheng's unique body of work.

Cheng analyzes his alchemical pool.  Chelsea Hotel, New York City.

From the start, Ching Ho Cheng's art has been a search for evidence of connectedness: man with man, man with nature, and man with God. The proliferation of forms in his work in the sixties and early seventies was stylistically in tune with the experimentally induced hallucinations of that time. Yet there is ample confirmation of his innate gift for clarity and wholeness in even the most complex paintings of the period. In his earliest mature work, Triptych (1970-1971), and in The Astral Theater (1972), we find a technical mastery that fairly takes the breath away. The intelligence and discipline apparent in these early pieces show an artist ready to evolve in any stylistic direction he feels impelled to take.

In the work he has produced since, we can see more clearly the fundamental concerns Ching brings to his art: a non canonical obsession with "religion"; an evolving preoccupation with finding "oneness" in all this hectic barrage of modern urbanism; the excavation of "natural" from the common muddle. Not that Ching denies the gorgeousness of the skin of twentieth-century life; the visible world is his main focus. At the same time there is a depth to his work that can only be ascribed to a search for the Sublime.

To fully analyze an artist's work one must ask these questions: How does it change over time? What appears constant? This is obviously less daunting a task if one surveys the finished work of an historical figure, where early, middle, and late periods are clearly delineated. With a contemporary in full career such as Ching, I suggest that the constant in his work is a feeling of awe in the face of nature and its visual equivalents, and s sense of connectedness with forces that we do not fully understand. In the early psychedelic paintings and the later minimal works there is a common root: the artist's fascination with extreme states of perception. One can never accuse Ching of an involvement with the mundane. There is instead the need to empty his work of all social or cultural vestiges in order to cleanse perception and return it to its natural state. Ching has put it clearly: "I do not seek to apotheosize the mundane. Far from it. I simply take great pleasure in little things."

In 1983 Ching visited a clairvoyant, who told him to "wrap [him]self in a color of certainty" as a way of leaving his physical body in order to experience empty space, eternity. This came at a time of great tragedy in his personal life. He needed urgently to address questions of creation and existence in order to help him cope with personal loss in manner that slammed no doors, that didn't preclude the meta-physical, the paraphysical--the magic of being. The remarkable group of blue torn paper pieces (Blue Breaking, Blues Rock, The Certainty of Blue--all from 1984) was the response. These blue grottoes, with their overarching certainties and depth of field, grew naturally from the need to heal.

It was on a visit to Turkey in the early 1980s that Ching first became involved with the theme of the fragment versus the whole, a theme he has explored rigorously throughout this decade. The fragmented relics of the ancient world that litter the Mediterranean landscape show the pressures of time and nature on man-made forms. The natural course of growth and decay soon became an integral part of Ching's art, as he began working with oxides that literally grow and change as they interact with the paper, water and air, leaving an earthy rusty residue on the surface to remind us that Ching's art is not merely a representation of natural life, but an extension of it.

It was a vision of Ching's Grotto in the oversize windows of the Grey Art Gallery in Manhattan that shocked me into a lasting appreciation of the grandeur of his recent work and its success in stating bold and healing certainties. To quote Gregory Millard in a catalogue essay on Ching's work, "The magic lies in the feeling not the technical implementation of the image... the light is alive."

Contemporanea, November/December 1988