How Michael Cherney wields the camera like an inkbrush

The photographer’s genre-bending explorations in the contemporary ink tradition were part of an Art Basel pop-up exhibition at Alisan Fine Arts.

by Jones John Published on : Jul 25, 2020

Even as the COVID-19 pandemic brought the global exhibition circuit to a halt, the relatively relaxed safety protocols in the island city of Hong Kong allowed for it to host a steady string of exhibitions through the lockdown months. Since April 4, the halls of Alisan Fine Arts, Aberdeen, have played host to works of seven artists who, according to the exhibition’s press statement, “strive to revolutionise the classical format and reinvent traditional ink art, be it through the use of innovative media, choice of subject matter, presentation or composition”. Amidst the artefacts on display at the exhibition, titled Contemporary Forms of Ink Painting, are objects such as a bamboo and stainless-steel birdcage with avian figurines on the inside and a stainless-steel boulder textured with imprinted fingerprints across its surface, works by the artists Kum Chi-Keung and Zhang Yu respectively, which neither seem to follow the compositional aesthetics of ‘traditional’ Asian art forms nor incorporate the medium of Chinese ink in its making. While these inconsistencies might be confusing at first, a quick inspection reveals these to be symptomatic of certain post-modern trends that have culminated in the creation of the loosely-defined genre of ‘contemporary ink’, based on an understanding of the tradition as being philosophically procedural rather than simply stylistic or medium-specific.

Michael Cherney | Contemporary Forms of Ink Painting| Michael Cherney| STIRworld
Michael Cherney Image Credit: Courtesy of Michael Cherney

Even within this expansion of one of the longest continuous artistic traditions in the world, with a history stretching as far back as the invention of paper, the use of photography might come across as a little disorienting considering the empirical nature of this medium against the sense of expressionistic vitality that is emphasised upon within the philosophy of Chinese ink painting. Yet, it is on a fine line between these seeming contradictions that the artist Michael Cherney, or Qiu Mai as he is known in Chinese, traverses, using the materiality of the photo film and printer ink against rice-paper in a manner that is rife with the spirituality of landscape painting, which due to the sagacity of its practitioners and its surrounding ethos has often been seen as the most esteemed of Chinese visual arts.

Fan Motif #2 | Contemporary Forms of Ink Painting| Michael Cherney| STIRworld
Fan Motif #2 Image Credit: Courtesy of Michael Cherney

At the exhibition, which is part of Art Basel’s pop-up programmes, Cherney’s works includes large granular monochrome vignettes of torpid waters and a horizontally long skyline depicting a forested mountain. Despite the difference that technology makes in the creation of artworks, and the possible gaps that might exist in the practice of making an image and reproducing an image, as is the distinction between traditional fine arts and photography, Cherney’s work might appear to fit more easily within the Chinese ink painting than some of the more sculptural works being displayed at Contemporary Forms of Ink Painting simply due to its visual and material properties. Yet, his medium’s inherent realism leaves him vulnerable to essentialist critique.

Michael Cherney was shooting at Fuchizhen in the Hubei province where the COVID-19 pandemic originated | Contemporary Forms of Ink Painting| Michael Cherney| STIRworld
Michael Cherney was shooting at Fuchizhen in the Hubei province where the COVID-19 pandemic originated Image Credit: Courtesy of Michael Cherney

Cherney is situated in an interesting cultural precarity as an artist of American origin who came to Beijing in the 1990s to study language.  “In the very beginning I wanted to break out of the same rectangle that you put on the wall, and just by cropping along in slides and looking at it in little sections, not only do you get a kind of rhythm to a photograph but you also get closer to that traditional feeling of losing some perspective. As I got an understanding of the formats, I was also increasing my own education and trying to refine it further because there is so much that has come before.”

Watercourse Dry Leaf #4 by Michael Cherney | Contemporary Forms of Ink Painting| Michael Cherney| STIRworld
Watercourse Dry Leaf #4 by Michael Cherney Image Credit: Courtesy of Michael Cherney

“Painters that painted landscape always represented people as very small within the scale of the landscape, so it is almost like a spiritual journey where the landscape represents something so powerful.” This spiritual journey was always a result of a physical journey and it is here that we see Cherney’s practice becoming embedded within the living history of these indigenous practices. “There is a very rich tradition in China of just copying earlier works but also you are supposed to travel around the country – this doesn’t have to be an artist, it could be anybody – to experience the history, the places where people have gone before, and feel like you are part of that story, and become inspired to add your part to it.”

Contemporary Forms of Ink Painting at Alisan Fine Arts | Art Basel Pop-Up Contemporary Forms of Ink Painting | Michael Cherney | STIRworld
Contemporary Forms of Ink Painting at Alisan Fine Arts Image Credit: Courtesy of Michael Cherney and Alisan Fine Arts

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About Author

Jones John

Jones John

John is an independent curator and art-historian working out of Bengaluru, India. He has studied at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Bengaluru, and Lasalle College of the Arts, Singapore. His research interests revolve around transcendentalism in the visual arts, cross-cultural identities and their relationship to contemporary culture.

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