Galen Cheney's sojourn in China last fall, as an artist-in-residence at Da Wang Culture Highland in Shenzhen, was in some ways the trip of a lifetime. The Middlesex artist and her husband traveled around the country for a couple of weeks following her two-month residency. Aside from its exotic locale, though, the experience wasn't unprecedented for Cheney; it simply propelled one more turn in the constant evolution of her lyrical abstractions. Some of the works she made at Da Wang, along with pieces created in her home studio since then, are currently on view at River Arts in Morrisville.
"Galen Cheney — to China and Back" presents oil paintings on canvas or linen, and collage works on paper or canvas using ink, acrylic and mixed media. That recitation of ingredients only begins to describe the artist's creations, however. Key words here are "paper" and "collage." Some pieces are works not just on but of paper — a mixture of found bits, torn into strips, and cut-up previous paintings. While these materials began life in two dimensions, Cheney's collages expand riotously into 3D, some fairly bursting from their wall-hung bases.
"China No. 9" is one of the better-behaved paper works, despite its large scale — 57 by 55 inches. Hung in the hallway outside the gallery proper, it has a rather feminine sensibility: Long, narrow strips of torn paper in zillions of layers adhere to a heavier paper backing. The effect is like a ruffled skirt, albeit with tattered bits rebelling against the horizontal lines. Bright hues appear among the mostly white ruffles, but the overall palette is delicate.
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"China #9," inks on collaged paper
Cheney abandons right angles, and decorum, in the amoebic paper collages "Early Lotus" (60 by 52 inches) and "Swirl" (52 by 72 inches). One imagines these irregularly shaped works were created in a rampage — of creativity, not anger. The artist has selected individual fragments of paper to form a collective expression that is both chaotic and somehow coherent. These fractions add up to a whole, but not a predictable one.
The ragged construction of "Swirl" suggests randomness, as if the artist just kept tacking on shape after haphazard shape until she decided to stop. And perhaps she did. But evidence of intentionality appears in the wide strips of paper — again, ripped from prior paintings — that she has adhered to the surface at both their ends, fashioning an arch in the middle. Imagine caterpillars of paper prepared to inch their way across this wild terrain.
The previously painted works on paper are central to Cheney's process; she prepares them and then tears them apart, not yet knowing how she will use them. Yet one recurring motif in those loosely brushed pieces brings a cohesive element to the collection: swaths of black ink made by a particular brush. Cheney says it's the only one she took with her to China.
Rather than a solid band of black, the brush creates streaks of parallel lines. The artist has fun with this effect; black-and-white ribbons dance around the picture plane like trails of electrons freed of their orbits. These pathways are particularly buoyant in "Untitled (Swirling Vapor)." In this 38-by-33-inch work of ink, oil and paper on canvas, the ribbons dart out erratically from a central cluster of black and brightly colored shapes. The outer edges of this rectangle are left unpainted, providing welcome areas of visual respite.
The swirl is a favored gesture in Cheney's works, and the freedom with which she makes these marks suggests playfulness. So does the unexpected appearance of denim in "Dragon Lady." At 93 by 40 inches, the piece dispenses with the constraints of geometry and dangles down the wall nearly to the floor. The artist says she'd like to keep adding to this work, giving it a wedding-dress-like train.
From a distance, "Dragon Lady" indeed seems to have a curvy woman's shape. The denim pieces — cut-up jeans, apparently — are flung over the right shoulder and hug the waist at left. Among the hundreds of paper shards that make up this work are shiny red and gold ones that Cheney says are remnants of Chinese New Year festivities.
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"Stork," oil on canvas
Before the trip to Shenzhen, Cheney had begun to "explore paper," she says, during an earlier residency at Vermont Studio Center in Johnson. The works on view in "To China and Back" continue her experimentation with the medium. But this artist is primarily an oil painter — five of her characteristically lush, nonrepresentational works appear at River Arts — and so she thinks about permanence. Paper tends to lack that quality, and some of the ones she has used in these works are far from archivally rigorous.
That's why the apex of Cheney's collage studies, at least in this exhibit, may be "Quilt." A very large piece of canvas — 71 by 77 inches — is lashed to a heavy wooden frame with grommets and thick cord. A flurry of swirling pink lines and black-and-white brushwork nearly covers the canvas, to which paper bits are collaged. But Cheney supplements these with previously painted and torn pieces of canvas and burlap. The coalition of durable materials and unfettered technique suggests a promising direction. Never mind its staid title; "Quilt" is an energetic, exciting, all-elbows piece of work.
The artist herself says of collage: "I had done a couple pieces before, but they were methodical, tedious; I had an idea and I realized it.
"But in China," Cheney continues, "I wanted it to be about process — more painterly and open, so much more interesting to make."
In this she has succeeded.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Paper Trials"