Caroline Cheng: Reinventing Subversion

Article excerpt


IN OVER TWO DECADES OF WORKING AS A PAINTER, SCULPTOR and ceramist, Caroline Cheng has compiled an increasingly sophisticated commentary on Chinese culture, politics and life through her art. Her work has been exhibited in one-person and invitational group exhibitions in China as well as New York, Chicago, Geneva, San Francisco and other cities internationally. She is also included in many public and private collections worldwide. Born in Cambridge, England in 1963, she earned a BFA in painting from Michigan State University and an MFA in sculpture from the Academy of Art College, San Francisco.

In 1991, as she was becoming a recognized artist, Cheng moved to Hong Kong to further pursue her career. She assumed management of The Pottery Workshop in Hong Kong and went on to open workshops in Shanghai (2002), and Jingdezhen (2005), where she also instituted a popular international Pottery Workshop Residency Program. In Beijing in 2007, Cheng opened the most recent Pottery Workshop and gallery. She has also become a force in developing new art talent while preserving traditional ceramic techniques. She is dedicated to furthering ceramics as a fine art in China and has travelled countrywide and beyond presenting lectures, demonstrations and curating exhibitions.

In addition to her fine art, Cheng makes mass produced functional work stating that "while these two parallel ways of making ceramics may not seem to relate to each other, they do relate in a very fundamental way. They are based on Chinese imagery/ icons/techniques and philosophies".

The underlying concept in Cheng's work is seeing the traditional anew, re-examining the relationships of China's long history and traditions in the context of their usefulness today. Her work has ranged from expressive playful realism to refined semi-abstraction. When dealing with broad social commentary, Cheng's work has been described as sarcastic, iconoclastic, humorous, witty and irreverent. Her recent work, which offers a more subtle commentary, has been characterized as unique, intelligent, sophisticated and beautiful.

Cheng's capability to direct her art through its continual evolution springs from her extensive understanding of the visual language as well as the ability to intelligently adapt its usage to the changing conceptual, philosophical and stylistic purposes of her art.

In 2002, Cheng began the Mao Series using small mass-produced ceramic statues of Mao as a surface on which to apply colour, as if a canvas. What resulted were Maos in primarily standing poses, attired as Warhol, Ho Chi Minh, and Elvis, among others.


Cheng's humour, irreverence and other qualities of her art can be traced to the influences of artists Marcel Duchamp, Robert Arneson and cartoonist Gary Larson. As a group, their art may be described as non-art, sarcastic, absurd, offensive, humorous, ironic, witty and iconoclastic. Their influence on Cheng is apparent in her Mao Series. If one were to compare work from the series with Dadaist Marcel Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q., 1919, (a reproduction of Da Vinci's Mona Lisa on which he simply added a moustache and goatee) and with Surrealist Meret Oppenheim's Object, Fur Covered Cup, 1936 (a teacup, spoon and saucer which she covered with fur), one would conclude that Duchamp, Oppenheim and Cheng had arrived at the same conceptual space. By utilizing these images as a surface upon which to add their iconoclastic gestures, these artists succeed in marginalising the traditional iconography of the Mona Lisa, the teacup and Mao, and in turn establishing their new iconography. They accomplish this by keeping the forms of their objects as is, adding to what was originally there.

In Mao as Warhol, Cheng selects a Mao posed in a relaxed gesture with hat in hand and arm calmly raised. She applies playfully placed dots equal in size and distribution to its surface; she then tops off Mao with a coarse horse-haired wig, enhancing the work's playfulness, funkiness, humor and wit. …