Landscapes of China, Arnold Chang and Michael Cherney, AD&A Museum, UCSB
By Marshall Sharpe
“All Under Heaven: Landscapes of China” at the Art, Design & Architecture Museum at UC Santa Barbara features the photography and inkbrush painting of Arnold Chang and Michael Cherney. The title references the English translation of Tianxia (天下), an ancient Chinese term referring to the land controlled by the Emperor, the Son of Heaven.
The exhibition contains twenty-two original paintings and photographs on paper, opening with a pair of collaborative pieces, “Perspectives #1” and “Perspectives #2.” In “Perspectives #1,” a wide obtuse triangle, contains an upside-down, black and white photograph by Cherney, depicting a series of mountains that slowly fade into the distance. A tiny, silver river snakes through the center of these mountains, disappearing near the top of the triangle. The river re-emerges outside of the triangle in a right-side-up, inkbrush painting by Chang of a dramatic mountainous scene.
“Perspectives #2,” hung directly below “Perspectives #1,” offers a foil of the upper image. This time, the triangle is upside-down, the photograph of a mountainous scene is right-side-up, and the inkbrush painting emerges out of the bottom of the triangle. Regardless of the orientation, the mountain ridges of the photograph align perfectly with the mountain ridges of the inkbrush painting.
The collaboration is powerful; it emphasizes the old and the new—the inkbrush painting and the photograph—coexisting in a symbiotic relationship. By extension, the diptych suggests ancient and contemporary practices can inform one another, producing new and unusual results.
In “Ink Bamboo #1,” Cherney depicts a cacophony of blurred, thin, bamboo leaves, shaking sensually in the wind, an effect achieved through a long exposure. In certain areas, the leaves overlap, creating gorgeous, black, abstract shapes, which contrast with the grey tones of the solitary leaves at the edge of the branches. The use of empty space and the variation of gradients effectively emulates the style and composition of classical Chinese inkbrush painting.
Chang’s most exciting ink brush painting in the exhibition is “Landscape.” It is an approximately six-by-three foot ink and color painting on paper, depicting a series of mountains, valleys and plateaus, that recede into the distance.
It is a brilliant composition that utilizes negative space to imply atmospheric perspective—valleys full of mist and a pool of water at the base of the mountains. He surprises the viewer by adding a wash of pastel purple, ochre, blue and green onto the plateaus, mountains and trees, making the piece simultaneously contemporary and classic.
Chang’s work feels monumental in scale, masterful in technique, and sparse in its lack of figures or human elements. Viewers are left wondering, why has he excluded any trace of human impact upon the land?
Throughout the exhibition, the six collaboration pieces stand out as the most engaging work. These pieces embed geometric cropping of Cherney’s photographs—a triangle, square or fan shape—with the organic brush strokes of Chang’s paintings, creating unusual and surprising work.
The viewer’s eyes constantly shift between the two mediums, building relationships and drawing comparisons between the two practices.
Strangely, the collaborative pieces are consistently smaller in scale than the artists’ individual works, causing the viewer to question whether the two artists value their own practice over their collaborations.
As a body of work, “All Under Heaven” presents a contemporary view of Chinese landscapes that honors the tradition of inkbrush painting and pushes the cannon of collaborative practice.
“All Under Heaven: Landscapes of China by Arnold Chang and Michael Cherney” is on exhibit Sept. 29 to Dec. 9 at the AD&A Museum, UC Santa Barbara.