Ching Ho Cheng
“For me painting is a very spiritual thing,” Ching Ho Cheng told the Soho Weekly News in 1977. “It is the most spiritual thing I do.” Curated by Simon Wu, “More Life” is one of a series of solo exhibitions across David Zwirner’s New York and London locations. Organized on the 40th anniversary of the first 5 AIDS cases, these exhibitions celebrate artists whose lives were cut short by the epidemic. Wu’s installation and accompanying catalogue essay also seek to resituate Cheng’s practice—long couched in spiritualist tendencies—within a framework of queer ecology. The exhibition reveals Cheng’s practice to be process-based, alchemical, magical, and possessed of a worldview that prized the fractal beauty of everything from gut bacteria to the grain of a sheet of paper.
Born in Havana, Cuba, to Chinese parents in 1946 and raised in the U.S., Cheng attended the Cooper Union, where he developed an interest in the spiritual traditions of Taoism and delved into Hopi and Navajo artifacts and Tibetan art. Not long after, he created the paintings he fittingly referred to as “psychedelics.” Chemical Garden (1970), an early work, features a rollicking microbiome, including a dense network of semi-abstract shapes that recall bacilli, sperm, and archaea, encircled by a chain of intestines and a rectum that spurts out more squiggling forms. Here, the dizzying networks of birth, death, and reproduction—itself a fraction of a much larger and complex body—dispels heterosexist dualisms in favor of a queer ecology that foregrounds interrelation, rebirth, and multiplicity.
Cheng settled in the Chelsea Hotel in 1976, where he lived until he passed away in 1989. There, he settled into a quieter body of work. “I have had all my explosions,” he told an interviewer that year. “Now I am concerned with the subtlety of expression.” Untitled (1980), a gouache on rag paper work, captures a sweep of dawn light across a wall. The luminous parallelogram of the window is bisected by the pane and the bird-like silhouette of the window lock. A wire hanger, hooked upon a bent nail, is rendered in exquisite detail—the dots of white paint suggest the subtly variegated texture of metal, inviting the viewer closer, where the swath of blank wall and paper comes alive. A tiny bullseye where another nail once hung; a constellation of pinprick stars where the paint buckled and broke.
It would be a mistake to imagine that Cheng passed those days in a monk-like solitude. “Most of the show isn’t on the walls,” Wu told me. “[It’s in] the hours spent with Ching’s sister, Sybao Cheng-Wilson, in their apartment in the Chelsea Hotel, looking through old letters and photos and sketches of Ching's, getting to know him across space and time.”
Indeed, many of Cheng’s meditative paintings were in fact scenes from neighbors’, friends’, and lovers’ rooms. And Cheng was active in the Chelsea Hotel and nearby Max’s Kansas City’s rambunctious social scenes, itself suggestive of a queer ecology of artists, writers, actors, and composers. From the expansive lunar landscapes he found in cracking walls to the ecosystem of artists in which he was embedded, the rapt attention Cheng devoted to every level of matter is itself indicative of a boundless sense of spirituality. —Lisa Yin Zhang
Ching Ho Cheng, Untitled, 1981. © 2021 ESTATE OF CHING HO CHENG / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York