Philadelphia

Emily Cheng

Schmidt-Dean Gallery

Emily Cheng photographically reproduces images from Renaissance paintings on linen and then layers the black and white grounds with her own painted additions. In the six oil paintings in this exhibition, Cheng very nearly obliterates the photographic image, and the portions that remain are intended to serve as clues to her own painted marks. Along with transparent washes, the artist creates abstract forms that frequently suggest puzzle pieces.

The complexity of the relationships between these formal elaborations begins to create a dialogue about pictorial language itself, suggesting that Cheng hopes to discover meaning through her formal interventions. Triple Convergence (all works 1990) is the most obviously symbolic work in this show. A fully modeled blue ribbon tied over a red, heartlike form floats above three nearly obscured figures from Botticelli’s Madonna Enthroned with Six Saints, 1475. The strength of the red and blue against the whitewashed architectural elements introduces a sense of heraldry, while the scumbled application of paint—a red stain moves out from the heart—formally bridges the gap between Cheng’s world and that of the Renaissance. In Risks and Dangers a similar approach is used to equal effect.

In Brave Deception the artist builds upon a necklace image in the original by repeating flat circular shapes in symmetrical, contemporary-looking configurations. With or without access to the content of the original painting, this work casts the viewer adrift; the references cued by the applied images are esoteric, at best, and the added forms appear to function only as visual types (flat and decorative, biomorphic, etc.) rather than as essential realizations of a pressing idea. Here, again, most of the original Renaissance image is gone, leaving the new images little to work against and denying the viewer the broader context in which these images might be understood.

La Maddalena, based on a painting of the same name by Carlo Crivelli, is an example of just how arbitrary Cheng’s formal maneuvers can be. Working from a strangely formal portrait, the mystery of which depends upon Magdalen’s averted gaze, Cheng has painted out everything but an architectural fragment and a section of the figure’s bodice and left sleeve. From the fabric of the dress the artist has picked out a pattern and exaggerated its forms, as flat black and white shapes that oppose each other. The three colored squares in the center repeat themselves in a manner reminiscent of a Joseph Albers exercise, by a subtle reversal or variation in hue, while large, biomorphic, red forms hover behind.

Before Cheng’s work, the viewer is left decoding the formal systems and longing for the unspoken mystery that constitutes the experience of painting at its best. Though she seems to have her hands full for now, her approach seems promising.

Eileen Neff