From Two Arises Three: The Collaborative Works of Arnold Chang and Michael Cherney

Shotgun Review

From Two Arises Three: The Collaborative Works of Arnold Chang and Michael Cherney

By Jing Cao October 14, 2014

Chinese landscape painting is notoriously inaccessible—the format is foreign, the subject deep in historicity, the materiality unassuming. Photography, on the other hand, is eminently familiar—a daily practice for many in the digital age. Enter From Two Arises Three, an exhibition of painter Arnold Chang and photographer Michael Cherney’s collaborative works at the Asian Art Museum. 

At first blush, From Two Arises Three resembles a traditional landscape exhibition. Black-and-white hanging scrolls line the gallery walls; paper fans and album leaves fill cases in the center. But look closer and a genuinely contemporary collaboration begins to unfold. Many images are actually composites, with Cherney’s grainy, out-of-focus photographs bleeding into Chang’s traditional landscape painting. In a video interview that accompanies the show, Chang and Cherney describe their process: Cherney travels across China, taking photographs. He mails these to Chang’s studio in New Jersey, where they are printed onto xuan paper. Chang then extends the imagery with ink and brush. Like an exquisite corpse, Chang’s paintings grow out of Cherney’s photographs.

To add another layer of complexity, many of Cherney and Chang’s collaborations are reinterpretations of Chinese masterpieces. In After Mi Fu (2010)—a long, meditative skyscape—Cherney’s ethereal photography imitates the Song master’s gentle washes of sky, while Chang’s brushwork re-creates Fu’s soft mountain peaks, which seem to float in a sea of clouds. In After Huang Gongwang 1-4 (2009), Cherney’s pointillist trees and distorted waterfalls remarkably resemble Yuan master Gongwang’s originals and blend seamlessly into Chang’s studied brushwork. Cherney’s novel use of photographic technology renders with a lens and printer what was once accomplished with ink and brush. 

Michael Cherney and Arnold Chang. After Huang Gongwong 4, 2009 (detail); photographic inkjet print and ink on paper. From the collection of Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang. Courtesy of the Artist and Asian Art Museum. Photo: Jing Cao. 

One of the pair’s more recent works, Mount Huang (2012), plays even more deliberately on the notion of binaries. The folding album features twelve pairings of photographs and paintings, each with varying levels of abstraction. While some photographic panels clearly describe peaks and valleys, others appear as formal compositions of light and dark. Similarly, some painted panels use fine, controlled lines to outline trees and rock formations, while others combine rushing, fluid movements and light and dark ink splashes to merely suggest a landscape. When the work is taken as a whole, one gets the sense of moving back and forth between two worlds, each evolving in its own right while also conversing with the other.

By combining elements from opposing art practices and traditions, Chang and Cherney bring into question supposed binaries of painting and photography: what is real and imagined, the past and present, and divisions between East and West. Their landscapes represent a hybrid vision of a world that is not “either/or” but “both/and”—a world that blends cultures and perspectives to create something new.

From Two Arises Three: The Collaborative Works of Arnold Chang and Michael Cherney is on view at Asian Art Museum, in San Francisco, through March 1, 2015.

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