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The Brooklyn Rail

Cheng’s gifted handling of oil paint is something we should appreciate in light of an art world that pays less and less attention to technical mastery.

Looking very much like the visual first cousin of Zao Wou Ki, Wang Yan Cheng offers a large show of paintings at Acquavella Galleries, where his Abstract Expressionist canvases appear very much like a slightly foreign version of an idiom originated and championed in New York. It is hard, at least for this writer, to fully accept work made of this sort, imitating to some extent achievements made in the middle of the last century. But it is fair to say that Cheng’s output, recognized by the French government (his awards include the Chevalier des Arts et Lettres, the Legion of Honor, and the Commander Medal of French Arts and Literature) merits genuine appreciation, even renown. Abstract expressionism is still alive in the hands of individual artists, although its dominance as a movement has been over for many years. This means that even someone with as much technical skill as Cheng, must work at least partially in a scholarly manner in order to push the question of outdated influence to the background. Cheng’s show, mostly of large paintings, with one epically sized, multi-panel work, emphasized billowing swathes of color and thick surfaces that at times suggest natural forms, others not. Most of the time the paintings seem to be self-referential. Their expressiveness takes on its own meaning within the self-imposed constraints of the painter. Cheng’s gifted handling of oil paint is something we should appreciate in light of an art world that pays less and less attention to technical mastery.

Cheng now has studios in Paris and Beijing, having studied at the Shandong University of the Arts and the Central Academy of Fine Arts in China and at Joan Monnet University in France. Since the late 1980s, he has traveled back and forth between France and China. In this show, French elegance vies with an existent but primarily hidden Chinese appreciation of nature. The forms are deeply organic, as in the 307-inch-wide triptych, Untitled (2018). Filled with surging, oceanic energies in gray, black, green, yellow, and blue, the forms cascade from one panel to the next like waves, suggesting the mounting energies we associate with an active sea. In the left, the upper register is filled with black and green forms, while in the middle panel we see sea-green and blue occupying its center. On the right panel, a yellow-white expanse holds the upper left half diagonally, while on the right, dark blue dominates. It is a painting of extreme ambition and accomplishment, close to the colors and the rhythms of water. Untitled (2019) emphasizes Cheng’s skills as a colorist. It is filled with verticals that are green and white in the center, with a medley of effects and hues on the right and left edges. The green column has a series of horizontal skeins on its left, while the edges exhibit an amalgam of colors: white, black, slate blue, and green. The surface is complicated in texture, showing just how good Cheng is in constructing a painterly exterior.

Untitled (2019) also suggests nature: a blue, mirror-like pond in the upper left of the composition, which is partially framed by an autumnal brown. The bottom half of the composition produces skeins of yellow, black, and blue against a white background. The painting is highly lyrical, a musical work of joined effects and colors that support each other. We know this kind of work in general, in which poetic insight results from the high-functioning technical decisions of the artist. It is hard to see these paintings without calling up from memory one’s experience of Abstract Expressionist art. It is also true, though, that the works mix Western and Eastern sensibilities, which makes them subtle hybrids. Indeed, the combinations are so well merged it is more or less impossible to separate one from the other. This is a tribute to Cheng’s ability to synthesize, both on the level of technique and the presentation of imagistic abstraction.

Lastly, Untitled (2019), a brilliantly colored abstract oil from this year, looms out toward the viewer with its vibrant mix of hues: a large orange/red/light brown mass in the middle is flanked on the left by a thick, dark blue abstract passage and a yellow mass and a pale green edging towards the far right. Despite the nearly anarchic riot of color, somehow Cheng maintains decorum. While each painting is impressive on its own, the exhibition has an overall force derived from seeing related forms and colors expressed over and over again in ways that expand our sense of the artist’s achievement. Cheng is a master of his medium, and while his stylistic practice may not be new, his sensibility is one of innovation and contemporaneity. Coupled with his high skill, Cheng’s inherent creativity enables him to paint memorable art.