In her bold abstracted paintings Galen Cheney often layers multiple media such as textile color, spray paint, oil pastel, acrylic, and collage to create complex images. Her paintings brings to mind a crossing between graffiti and abstract expressionism with a distinct sense of immediacy and gestural mark making. Galen Cheney shares with Art Spiel some of her background, ideas, and process.
AS: Can you share what experiences you consider as formative in your art journey?
Galen Cheney: I think it started with my mother, actually. She was passionate about modern art, collecting what she could, attending lectures, and dragging my sister and me to museums. At a certain point she no longer had to drag me—I became excited to look at paintings, and my childhood home was full of abstract art. Growing up in this way, I understood that being an artist was a laudable way to live one’s life. My first trip to Italy at age 14 deepened my feeling of connection with and appreciation for art and history. I ended up going back and living in Italy for two years—an experience that informs my work to this day. My two years in graduate school at the Maryland Institute College of Art sealed it for me. There was no going back. A few key lessons from some teachers along the way, including painters Michael Goldberg and Grace Hartigan, as well as having my mind blown by a Joan Mitchell retrospective are some of the more important experiences that have shaped me as a painter.
AS: In one of the texts on your website you say that you like your paintings “to exist on a tightrope, right on the edge of coming apart.” Can you elaborate on that? How is it reflected in your process?
Galen Cheney: My paintings are very much about the process of making a painting, the state of being creative. I am not interested in making work that necessarily feels “finished.” I work best when I am in that uncomfortable place of uncertainty and vulnerability, and I try to maintain that state right up to the point when I put my brush down and walk away. I want my paintings to expose that open place. There is not one direction that a painting can take; I could easily have made a different decision at any point in a painting, taking it to a different outcome. I like my work to feel open, for a viewer to be able to step into it. A painting for me is never finished, really, I just stop working on it when it feels like I’ve done what I need to do for the painting to fully express itself.
AS: You say that you begin each painting with no specific outcome in mind, responding to the changes in the painting as you go. Can you tell me more about how you start a painting?
Galen Cheney: I will usually have a few paintings going in the studio that aren’t finished, but that have furthered the conversation that I am having. I try to push myself into some new territory with each painting, thus informing the next. I will take that last little discovery and explore it in the next painting. I then go back with new understanding into the in-progress paintings. It is a dialog that goes forward and back, but with a generally forward trajectory.
AS: It seems that you converse with Abstract Expressionism throughout much of your work. How important is art history in your thought process and what are your thoughts on that visual dialog?
Galen Cheney: As far as art historical movements go, the Abstract Expressionists have had the greatest influence on me as a painter, by far. Their approach to painting, their philosophy and process make complete sense to me. I never set out to be an Abstract Expressionist and I don’t label myself one, but it is the work that I find most satisfying, that strikes all the notes that I hope to strike in my work: a confidence, an urgency, a muscular authenticity, unbridled emotion, energy. I also take cues from street art, archeology, nature, and abandoned places of decay. I look at all periods and places in art history, however, to learn about painting, art, history, and being human. All of it informs the work.
AS: You are using a wide variety of material in your paintings, from oil colors to modeling paste. Let’s take for example Fledgling – can you share your ideas and process?
Galen Cheney: I derive inspiration from the exploration and manipulation of materials. I am a maker of objects, and while my paintings contain ideas, they are mostly visual and, hopefully, visceral experiences rather than conceptual ones. The more I can keep exploration of materials at the forefront, the less attached I can be to any particular outcome. I attempt to push that away for as long as possible. I am more likely to surprise myself if I allow the materials to lead me. Being physical and kinetic in the making of a piece also keeps my mind open and present, allowing me to access something deep and nameless, which is fundamentally why I paint.
The painting “Fledgling” is a good example of work being driven by an open-ended, exploratory process. I began by staining a large piece of raw canvas with liquid textile color. This step is wide open, as the color just flows and I do little to control what happens. I have been using unstretched, raw canvas recently as it is a surface that I can draw into and collage onto. I can rip it up and put it back together in new way, which is what I did with Fledgling. Parts of the underside were more interesting to me than the front, so I began ripping it into strips, rearranging them and attaching them so that parts of the underside became the front. The rest of the process involved layering in pieces of older works on paper, drawing with masking tape and gessoing those areas, painting into, etc.
AS: You also have a body of work you describe as “paper constructions and drawings”. Can you tell me about that?
Galen Cheney: Three years ago I was in China for three months for an artist residency. I went there with only a few pencils and a couple of my favorite ink brushes, as my intention was to explore the beautiful papers and inks that I would find there. I had no idea what work I would produce, only what materials I wanted to use. Being in China was an eye-opening experience for me; I was one of very few westerners in this small city, and, apart from a few phrases, I spoke no Mandarin. I had never before felt so foreign or out of my element. I was in a heightened state and I put all of my expressive energy into my work. It was the most productive period I have had. With papers bought and found I got to work. I think the only way to describe my feeling of being unmoored and disconnected yet very alive was to rip, alter, and recombine what became small mountains of paper in my studio. This is when I began working in collage in earnest. I felt like I was in a kind of trance, and when I came out of it I not only had a whole new body of work, but a new way of working as well as a path forward.
When I got home I wanted to apply the ideas I had developed with paper in China to canvas and other textiles. I am still working in this way—ripping paintings up, collaging them back together, adding paper, pulling elements off, adding others. Now it is almost difficult to imagine, say, making a painting that is just oil on canvas. My brain just isn’t there anymore, at least not now.
AS: Your War Paintings seem to be distinctly different from your other work. What’s your take on that and can you shed some light on this series?
Galen Cheney: I don’t normally respond directly through painting to outside events. But in 2006, after seeing photographs of Beirut after being bombed by Israel, my shock and horror led me to paint a series of works that became the War Paintings. I was painting pure emotion. I think one reason they stand out from my other work is that I was using and combining materials that I hadn’t used before and haven’t used since, like tar and aluminum roofing paint. I liked the feel of using those non-traditional materials, as well as the results, but ultimately they proved too unstable.
AS: How do you see the evolution of your work from a painting like Voyager (from the series Street Level) to a recent painting like Out of the Ashes?
Galen Cheney: Well, it’s been a long road, even though we’re only talking about six or seven years. When I painted Voyager I was transitioning from making work that was heavily inspired by street art to work that sought to incorporate my more natural Abstract Expressionist roots. That period of graffiti-inspired work had a lot to do with getting more drawing as well as texture into my paintings. I have continued to pursue those interests through different approaches, including a body of work that featured carvable plaster as a foundation. Years of steady painting have taught me a lot, making me a more confident painter, willing to take any risk, really, to get a painting to sing. Out of the Ashes is a good example of that and is probably my favorite new painting.
AS: And you do sculpture – surprisingly figurative fragments of Ivory soap with cedar base – can you tell me about that?
Galen Cheney: I think, deep down, that I may be a sculptor. In the early nineties I worked as a sculptor at a fine arts foundry in Oregon. I spent eight hours a day carving birds, animals, and whales out of wax. I had never done it before, though I seemed to have a natural ability. I hadn’t carved again until several years later when I was scheduled to have a show at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, NH. This is the homestead and studio of the great sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. I was particularly inspired by his carved wall reliefs and began doing small figurative carvings in white soap to accompany my paintings. Recently I have been thinking a lot about carving again. It is a wonderfully meditative act, absent the pressures I sometimes feel around painting.
AS: What are you working on now?
Galen Cheney: Of course I am always most excited about whatever work I am doing right now. I am making discoveries that feel full of potential, which I am grateful for. As ever, the work is being driven by materials–raw canvas, liquid textile color, gesso, oil paint, paper, and drawing materials—and processes—pouring, staining, ripping, adhering, masking, collaging, drawing, painting. I am after a visual story that is an expression of space, emotion, history, and energy, and which doesn’t shy away from a kind of gritty beauty.