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Clay Hands and Copper Eyes: Cindy Cheng

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Cindy Cheng is fascinated by conspiracy theories. Born in Hong Kong and raised in Vancouver and Hawaii as a child, the Baltimore-based artist says her study of conspiracism helps her to better understand American culture. With equal parts worry and wonder, Cheng describes conspiracy theories’ growing pervasiveness in mainstream American society and beyond, noting recent scholarly studies that identify the United States a top exporter of conspiracy theories to the rest of world.

“They sound so absurd,” Cheng says, “but ideas from conspiracy culture have sort of become foundational myths.” Working in a range of diverse media, Cheng explores conspiracism as part of a broader American experience.

Growing up, Cheng attended a boarding high school in Hawaii—a place she describes as very different from mainland United States—and got her BFA at Mount Holyoke College before returning to Hong Kong for five years. At the encouragement of an undergraduate drawing professor, Cheng put together a portfolio while she was in Hong Kong and was accepted to MICA’s now-defunct post-baccalaureate certificate program in 2007. She subsequently earned her MFA at MICA’s Mount Royal School of Art and has been in Baltimore ever since.

Now a MICA drawing professor, Cheng has a flourishing art career in Baltimore. She won the Sondheim Prize in 2017 for her installations exploring the relationship between drawing and three-dimensional objects, and a year later, was awarded a Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant. Cheng was also a 2022 Joan Mitchell Resident. Her work has been exhibited widely in Baltimore, the US, and Canada, including at the Walters Art Museum, School 33 Art Center, Present Junction Gallery (Toronto), and, more recently, in the Baltimore Art Museum’s All Due Respect exhibition, which featured work by four Joan Mitchell Foundation Award recipients (LaToya Hobbs, Lauren Frances Adams, and Mequitta Ahuja).

 

In this exhibition, Cheng investigated far-right conspiracy theories in a nuanced multi-media installation titled Nest. At the center of the complex installation was a video projection of an episode of Eagle’s Nest Ministries’ evangelist talk show, “Deception of a Generation,” denouncing the so-called depravity of Scooby Doo, which Cheng transformed into a cartoon itself, subverting its message by highlighting its absurdity. The installation was also populated with a variety of found and hand-crafted objects, including a fountain spouting water from a ceramic hand made by Cheng, complicating contemporary art’s relationship with furniture, home decor, craft, and digital video mapping.

Cheng is a perennial student, constantly learning to work with new materials that add rich layers of meaning to her work. Her ever-growing palette of media seems limitless: drawing, painting, installation, video, kiln-formed glass, sculpture, and papermaking. In a rare move for a “fine” artist working in installations, Cheng has expanded her art practice through clay and jewelry-making in recent years. While staying true to the conceptual ideas explored in her installation projects, Cheng uses traditional craft-based media to introduce a new functionality to her work that has historically been eschewed by “serious” fine artists.

Cheng credits Baltimore Clayworks and the Baltimore Jewelry Center not just for the myriad workshops where she learned new techniques, but with providing the necessary supportive, creative spaces for her to grow her craft-based practice. The artist has high praise for both arts organizations: “People there have an enormous amount of expertise,” she says, adding, “I get a lot of great comments, too, like a little think tank. It’s helped me to develop my work in a certain way that’s valuable.” Equally important to Cheng is being able to learn new skills and experiment in a place where you can fail and just keep going.

 

In a rare move for a “fine” artist working in installations, Cheng has expanded her art practice through clay and jewelry-making in recent years.

A 2015 slab-building class at Baltimore Clayworks, for example, gave Cheng the foundational knowledge she needed to create the disembodied ceramic hand that spouts water in Nest. And the Baltimore Jewelry Center’s Introduction to Jewelry class armed Cheng with the soldering skills necessary to make her art wearable.

The theme of disembodied figures is present throughout much of Cheng’s clay and jewelry work. In these media, Cheng uses symbols adapted by conspiracy theorists, such as the eye and ear, as part of a more contemporized and familiar visual language. The eye, a ubiquitous artistic motif throughout history, often symbolizes the “Illuminati”—a secret society of elites who rule the world—in conspiracy culture. “It’s a perfect target for conspiracy theorists because it’s on our money; it’s everywhere,” Cheng says.

Of particular interest to the artist is the Illuminati’s origin story. While fringe conspiracy theorists allege the continued existence of the Illuminati as a shadowy world order, the Illuminati was in fact a short-lived early 18th-century group of social idealists.

In Cheng’s work, eyes take the form of powder-coated copper brooches sitting atop a squished, hole-ridden ceramic face and crying an endless flow of bright purple tears—or blood? Or flames? Eyes (and ears) are painted onto a ceramic pearl-studded collar encircling a face in the manner of “The Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth I,” attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts, evoking the original’s “all seeing and all knowing” message of supernatural omnipotence. Eyes cover a disembodied glass hand wearing Cheng’s eye-themed rings, and articulated copper eye brooches boasting long lashes blink open to reveal eyeballs set with cubic zirconia.

While Cheng’s ceramic work—smashed, lopsided heads, grasping hands—is mostly incorporated into her installations, the artist’s jewelry has the capacity to take on a functional role. As an object of personal adornment, jewelry’s potential as an intimate art form resonates with Cheng’s exploration of conspiracism. Jewelry can communicate any number of hidden or overt messages on behalf of the wearer, but the medium’s “subtle, implied narratives” interest Cheng the most. Hidden engravings, cryptic symbols, and images denoting religious, political, or spiritual affiliations are all possibilities for wearers.

 

Crafted in copper, bronze, and cubic zirconia, much of Cheng’s jewelry is meant to be worn, although it is also, at times, incorporated into her installations. Scattered across a worktable in her spacious Greektown studio are several disembodied copper fingers waiting to be donned as brooches, pendants, and finger caps.

The finger caps, in particular, provide a form of adornment that is both protective and empowering. Featuring long, manicured nails and worn over one’s own finger, the caps serve as an extension of the body as well as a barrier shielding the wearer from the outside world. Cheng first conceived these pieces as “superhuman pointer fingers” that would allow her to confront her fears by physically pointing at them with the caps.

In a continuation of the finger symbol’s protective role in her work, the artist created a copper hair pin featuring four fingers (one of which is wearing a ring) that, when nestled in hair, evokes a hand stroking the wearer’s head. Harnessing the most intimate sense—touch— these objects of adornment demonstrate two of jewelry and accessories’ more private functions: to comfort and embolden the wearer.

For Cheng, jewelry can also act as an art form off the body. “I make these installations,” she says, “and I think there’s a lot of potential to hide things in it.” Filling the installation space with jewelry imbues both mediums with new meaning in a way that differs from the inclusion of her clay work. With its small scale, jewelry has the potential to reach the viewer in a more personal way, drawing them in by requiring closer inspection. It also raises new questions: can only a human body be adorned with jewels? Can jewelry be both decorative and integral to larger installation work? Cheng leaves room for these and more possibilities to be true.

Despite all her professional accomplishments as an artist, Cheng continues to hone her craft, and she’s not shy about it. Her infectious enthusiasm for materials and steadfast perseverance in the face of failure can only be admired. After all, learning slab-building, lost wax casting, and soldering (and much more) is challenging. Cheng’s art showcases the benefits of this fruitful experimentation and indicates an ever-evolving progression that will continue to surprise and challenge the artist and audience.

 

News: On Friday, July 28, see Cheng’s work in person at Current space in “Parallel Projections,” an exhibition of works by Cheng, Jay Sanborn, John Bohl, and Torrance Hall. Curated by Julianne Hamilton, Michael Benevento, and You Wu.

Opening Reception: Friday, July 28 from 7-10pm
Exhibit Runs: July 28 – August 27, 2023
Closing Reception & Artist Talk: Sunday, August 27
Gallery Hours: Sat 1-5pm, during public garden bar hours (Wed-Sat, 5-11pm), or by appointment

This story is from Issue 15: Migration, available here.

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