New York

Emily Cheng

Lang & O'Hara Gallery

In her new paintings, Emily Cheng combines fragments of images of different sorts, whether the flat shapes of Modernist abstraction or perspectival representations.Her paintings appear to be layered, with some forms in them suggesting bulbous shapes of organic Surrealism or geometric icons, as well as others that resemble folds of cloth or twisting tubes. All are presented using an extensive vocabulary of illusionistic devices—transparency, overlap, contingency, reversal of figure and ground. In their formal play, in the indirect nature of the clues they provide the viewer for reading them, these compositions suggest the work of Gary Stephan or the cutouts of Jean Arp.

Cheng’s compositions have grown simpler since her earlier paintings, but the spatial play has gotten more complex. Perhaps the most obvious change in these pictures is the appearance of translucent sheaths of color that cover the underlying forms. These thin curtains of color are pierced here and there, as if to allow us to glimpse the underlying formal machinery of the image—the winding tubular forms, the tessellated fragments, the deep space. Both in formal terms, and in their elegiac, transcendent mood, these glowing sheets of color, usually pale pastel blues or whites, recall the otherworldly lighting effects of Ross Bleckner’s recent paintings. Cheng accepts a dramatic, even melodramatic tone in her work, an acceptance she shares with other recent artists, many of whom look to Mannerism or the Baroque for precedents. The tissues of color intensify the illusionistic qualities of the paintings, underscoring their rejection of minimalist surface in favor of a wider, unabashedly theatrical vocabulary of form.

The struggle between surface, with all its capacity to imply or deny space, and the direct representation of space through chiaroscuro and perspective has been a central issue in much recent abstract painting. Cheng avails herself of both syntaxes—acknowledging that planar abstraction, like perspectival representation, or indeed any other artistic style, is necessarily imbued with the terms of the moment in which it is used. Her canny groupings of stylistic fragments imply that no artistic style is more authentic, less mediated, than any other—that it is impossible to transcend history, however possible it may be to convince oneself that one has done so. These paintings are both smart and impressive. The images they present are less convincing, perhaps because they are made to carry this theoretical burden. Cheng is working toward a challenging, historically aware and implicated style; it’s still not clear what she will do with it.

Charles Hagen