Emily Cheng: WholeInOne

Lauren Tresp | THE magazine - December 20, 2013

'Cheng’s work bridges the space between the interior world and the exterior world, both in the physical sense as well as an epistemological one.'

Emily Cheng, FlowerWorld, oil on canvas, 59” x 59”, 2008

There is an aura of mysticism that radiates from Emily Cheng's paintings and drawings. While it is not a mysticism known within this global-historical timeline, it is not plucked from sheer fantasy, either. Her work has the trappings of distinct cultural signifiers spanning from heraldic insignia to religious symbolism. There is something vaguely familiar in her motifs, taken from diverse sources within the histories of art, architecture, and cultural artifacts. These visual remnants are then morphed, blurred, or recombined into a language of signage that eludes decipherability but leads the viewer into another, perhaps transcendent, realm.

The artist’s small-scale paintings and drawings of abstracted motifs and emblems are often arranged in grids, creating an impression of an encyclopedic effort. The images are akin to studies or taxonomies of her source materials. The subject matter, however, is not sourced directly from any one place. The artist initiates dialogue with the past by gesturing toward vague styles evocative of coats-of-arms or medieval manuscript illumination. Where a symbolic emblem could conceivably connote a broader set of significations in its appropriate context, Cheng’s images are only fictions with elusive, otherworldly constellations of referents unknown to Earth-bound viewers.

For example, in Tuareg 5, a multicolored diamond shape hovers above a three-pronged spiral. The piece is part of a Tuareg series, referring to the traditionally nomadic peoples of Saharan North Africa. The diamond shape is similar to the Agadez cross of the Tuareg people, with some alter. An incised metallic plaque occupies the center of the cross suggesting it is a medallion of some kind. Each of the four jewel-toned corners of the cross is accented by a shape reminiscent of the Egyptian ankh—symbolic of eternal life, and the spiral is similar to the Celtic triskele symbol. 

Emily Cheng, Tuareg 5, gouache on paper, 141/4” x 10”, 2013 

The ambiguous but distinct symbolism in this piece, and throughout the exhibition, recalls the long history of art in service to religious expression as well as the universal use of visual devices for communicating human constructions of order, such as social identifications and hierarchies. By utilizing these traditional modes of expressing ideologies, but filling them in with fictive symbols, the artist turns these distinctions on their heads and ultimately renders them moot. By synthesizing various disparate traditions, these icons become allusions toward a new humanistic commonality.

There is a second style of work within the exhibition in addition to these small-scale images of icons and emblems. The large-scale paintings are created in the style of a mandala. Mandalas are circular spiritual and ritual images common in Hinduism and Buddhism, often representing the whole of the cosmos and indicating radial balance. In WholeInOne, Cheng’s mandala images are akin to schematized otherworlds, with titles such as TreePlanet, FlowerWorld, IslandWorld, and TaoWorld, each exuding a distinct personality. A theatricalized, colorful aura reflects the nature of the world it contains.

These painted orbs are diagrammatic expressions of order on the scale of the global. Shown in cross-section, all of the strata within are revealed, communicating the interconnectedness of the flowering, radiant surface. For example, in FlowerWorld a luminescent blue planet floats against a citron-yellow cosmos. A bounty of flowers and plants proliferate with splendid differentiation in form, detail, and color. However, below the surface the entire root system of the planet is a homogeneous web of black threads. In these painted worlds, the efflorescent fracturing at the surface is decidedly not a source of chaos or conflict, since each constituent element has its own place in the holistic structure.

Together with Cheng’s blending of cultural and religious icons and symbolism, these mandalas suggest a worldview of globalization and cultural meshing that results in wholeness. Like the paintings of fictive icons, the crucible of globalization deconstructs cultural difference and reveals commonality, the root ball within. Cheng’s work bridges the space between the interior world and the exterior world, both in the physical sense as well as an epistemological one. The differentiation of the world-surface is known through visual experience. The underlying unity of that world is something that is more often believed, but is increasingly experienced with the advent of globalization.

The concept of a work characterized by unity lends itself to sentimentality. However, Cheng’s work avoids creating some idealistic vision despite her interest in synthesis. Her pictures are too lyrical, too imaginative, and too artificial to be reflections on this reality. They hint instead at an alternate reality, a mystical realm that exists just out of sight in which global meshing has already taken its course. In this light, Cheng’s images serve as delightful oracles, painting the way to a world with greater unity.