Press | An American Photographer’s Presence in Chinese Contemporary Ink Art

From the early 1970s till 2000, the Metropolitan Museum of Art gradually built the largest Asian art collection under the lead of the scholar Wen C. Fong (1930-2018), establishing itself as a renowned prestigious institution of ancient works.

After 2000, under the promotion of the current head of the Metropolitan’s Department of Asian Art, Maxwell K. Hearn, the Asian collection started to expand its traditional-based contemporary collection by including more contemporary pieces, aiming to initiate conversation between Chinese contemporary art and ancient art, to establish the continuing legacy fo Asian ancient art in today’s world and the sustainability in the future. At that time, the accordion book Bounded by Mountains was included in the collection as the second piece of Chinese contemporary art, and the creator of this piece is surprisingly not Chinese (not even Asian) --- Michael Cherney, who named himself in Chinese ‘秋麦’ (autumn wheat).
Michael Cherney is a New York born artist of Polish-Jewish, born in 1969. Another aspect that sets him apart from other artists is that although he mainly creates photographs, viewers rarely identify his name in contemporary photography exhibitions, while his works are commonly displayed in group exhibitions focusing on Chinese traditional art inspired contemporary ink art curated by major Western museums’ Asain department, international auction houses, and prestigious Asian galleries.


In recent years, Cherney’s identity and works attracted more and more attention from the contemporary art industry across the States and China, inspiring discussions from both countries’ academia --- as an art practitioner who crossed cultures and countries, Cherney’s work challenged the boundary of contemporary art under the global perspective.


Gallery View of “Yet, Only Voice Echoed”, Bounded by Mountains by Michael Cherney ©THE FQM,2021


“Record a distanced historical perspective through the lens”

After graduating from the State University of New York at Binghamton with a Bachelor of Arts in Asian History back in 1991, Cherney headed to China to learn Chinese, planning to take over his father’s international trade business. Two years later, due to cancer, he had to pause his study and came back to the United States for treatment. Cherney read a photography book, The Fights, which introduced his grandfather Charles Hoff (1905-1975) during that difficult time. Charles Hoff was a photographer famous for his sports photography and has worked for The New York Times, he also captured the critical historical moment of the Hindenberg Disaster in 1937. The book inspired Cherney to rethink his career choice. Afterward, using photography to observe life became Cherney’s life direction.


"The Fights: Photographs By Charles Hoff", a photography book by Michael Cherney's grandfather Charles Hoff (1905-1975) 


At the initial stage of his photography career, Cherney aimed to convey various perspectives and directions. When it comes to the year between 2002 and 2003, Cherney gradually clarified his creation direction --- to record a distanced historical perspective through the lens.
“China has a special palace in the world, as it keeps a continuing and uninterrupted art tradition. The tradition can be traced back to ancient times. Currently, while China is undergoing tremendous changes, being able to use photography to capture this historical moment is indeed valuable.”
——Michael Cherney
Thereafter, Cherney carried his photography equipment trekking through the vast land of China, traveling while creating, searching for historical sites documented in art history. Through his lens, he captured and documented these fleeing yet once-existed moments on the land enriched by a long history and cultural memory. In Cherney’s constant artistic experimentation, he bought a blank accordion book and pasted his cut photos on the sheets, realizing that the product surprisingly resembled the cavalier perspective of Chinese ancient paintings --- viewers can not only wander through the details of the painting but can also enjoy the macroscopic perspective. Between 2004 and 2005, Cherney finished his first album leaf, which is the earliest section of Bounded by Mountains.

Gallery View of “Yet, Only Voice Echoed”, Bounded by Mountains by Michael Cherney ©THE FQM,2021


The second Western artist of the Asian Department since Giuseppe Castiglione

Bounded by Mountains quickly attracted attention from public art institutions and art historians in the States. In 2005,  the just-finished first piece of the Bounded by Mountains series was included in the collection of the Santa Barbra Museum of Art, which could be considered to be a milestone of Cherney’s artistic career, and thus opened the door to his artistic life.


Gallery View of "Streams and Mountains without End: Landscape Traditions of China" at The MET ©The FQM


Referred by art historians, Cherney joined a prestigious Asian art gallery in New York Kaikodo and participated in multiple exhibitions. Kaikodo’s founders Howard Rogers and Mary Ann Rogers used to study under the leadership of James Cahil (1926-2014), who is a reputable scholar focusing on Chinese painting history.  This legendary gallery specializes in Asian ancient and modern art and has been promoting contemporary ink artists’ works to Western art institutions and collectors since the early 90s, laying a solid foundation for the development of the ink art group.


Michael Cherney, Shadow Curtains #9a, at Kaiko Asian Art Gallery
At the same time, the Asian Department of the MET also noticed Cherney’s work and included his Bounded by Mountains: Mount Hua under the advocacy of Maxwell Hearn. Micheal Cherney, therefore, became the second Western artist included in the Asian Department’s collection after Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), the Italian missionary and court painter who has been favored by Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong Emperor of the Qing Dynasty.


Michael Cherney at The MET, 2007


Michael Cherney at The MET, 2007
The decision of including a Wester contemporary artist’s photography was wise and bold at that time: wise in terms of the fact that Cherney alongside Castiglione were both from the west but one from contemporary and one from ancient times together outlined the historical thread of China's political, social and cultural globalization since the late Ming Dynasty; bold in terms of the fact that including a contemporary Western artist’s photography challenged people’s view towards the limitation of Chinese contemporary art at that time --- Chinese art = art created by Chinese.

Gallery View of “Yet, Only Voice Echoed”, Bounded by Mountains by Michael Cherney ©THE FQM,2021


To increase and expand people’s understanding of Asian contemporary art during this globalizing era, the MET has included Cherney’s work in multiple large exhibitions, providing new perspectives and meanings for the exhibitions’ narratives. Exhibitions including Journeys: Mapping the Earth and Mind in Chinese Art in 2007 with Cai Guoqiang, Zhan Wang, Xu Bing, Hai Bo, Hong Hao, Qing Feng, Yu Peng which Cherney was the only western artist, The Art of the Chinese Album in 2015, and the three-year group exhibition Streams and Mountains without End: Landscape Traditions of China from 2017-2019.
Ten Thousand Li of the Yangzi River series by Michael Cherney at The MET's exhibition "Streams and Mountains without End: Landscape Traditions of China" ©The FQM
Ten Thousand Li of the Yangzi River series by Michael Cherney at The MET's exhibition "Streams and Mountains without End: Landscape Traditions of China" ©The FQM

In 2009, the head of Tang Center for East Asian Art, Chinese Art history professor Jerome Silbergeld introduced the exhibition Outside In: Chinese × American × Contemporary Art at Princeton University Art Museum, inviting Arnold Chang, Michael Cherney, Lin Zhi, Liu Dan, Vannessa Tran, and Zhang Hongtu to participate, which all are of American nationality but deeply rooted their works in Chinese culture. The exhibition aimed to reemphasize and expand people’s understanding of Chinese and American contemporary art, allowing people to view traditional, contemporary, Chinese, and American art from a more flexible perspective.


Outside In: Chinese × American × Contemporary Art, Princeton University Press, 2009


As pointed out in the exhibition article by Silbergeld, at that time, the United States’s understanding of China’s new era art was gradually constrained by the narrowly defined contemporary and experimentality and was neglecting other types of artistic practices. As one of the participating artists, Cherney’s personal experience and his work of traditional aesthetics broke the limitation of the artistic perception of the time, therefore becoming an extremely significant part of the exhibition.
Later, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, a major collector of Chinese art in the States, presented Cherney’s solo exhibition Among Stone and Mist: Chinese Landscape Photography by Michael Cherney. His works thereafter were accessioned by Cleveland Museum of Art, Harvard Art Museum, Yale University Art Gallery, UC Berkeley Art Museum, Getty Research Institute, and other art institutions, which further affirmed the pioneering nature of Hearn and Silbergeld’s decision.


Blurring the boundary between photography and ink painting

One of the most significant aspects of Cherney’s work is the blending atmosphere of photography and painting. When asked why he chose this particular medium, Cherney once mentioned that he was searching for concise language. He was able to discern the origin that developed this language in Chinese traditional landscape painting because this type of painting could capture nature’s essence in a minimalist language. Cherney’s observation of landscape painting over the years implicitly impacted his photography creation, therefore, photography was also seen by him as a way to copy the landscape. To create the sense of space from a cavalier perspective, Cherney would intentionally reduce the disclosure of details related to specific time and space, such as shadows, horizon, vegetation, and prefer fog, snow, and other weather conditions.


Michael Cherney, Fan Motif #4, 2010


Although the presented effect shares a similar atmosphere, the creative processes of using photography and painting to copy the landscape are completely different. For example, as Cherney mentioned, sometimes the details of certain photos were created by chance, as he did not take notice of it, and discovered it when enlarging the photos on the screen. He named this randomness “secondary memory”, as a means of recreating the memory through the editing process. The transience and contingency of photography provide Cherney’s works with unique attributes that are different from those of paintings.





Michael Cherney, Fan Motif #2, 2010


In Cherney’s exploration of the medium, his experimental practice blurred the boundaries between photography and ink painting, which enabled his photography work to be considered as art about boundaries. This can be seen in his collaboration with Arnold Chang. These two artists met in 2007 at the 3rd Chengdu Biennale, while Chang discovered that Cherney’s works’ presentation of nature’s texture is very similar to the brushstrokes of his landscape painting. Such cross-medium resonance in artistic creation led to the collaboration between the two artists that continues to this day. Since both Cherney’s photographic details and brushstrokes in Chinese ink painting are realistic depictions of nature, people again would tightly associate his work with ink art.

Arnold Chang and Michael Cherney, Inversion #1, Photography and Ink on Xuan paper


Arnold Chang and Michael Cherney, Inversion #2ii, Photography and Ink on Xuan paper


through Western academia and market, a complete blueprint for the evolution of both systems

Sotheby’s S|2 Gallery in New York started to host exhibitions of contemporary art with a focus on ink art in 2013, and Cherney was invited to exhibit in The Literati Within in 2016 and In the Realm of Trees in the following year. His work became better known to more collectors and gradually entered the important private collection system of the United States, including the founder of Yahoo Jerry Yang. In 2018, Chernye’s work was presented at the contemporary ink art collection exhibition Ink Worlds: Contemporary Chinese Painting from the Collection of Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang at Cantor Arts Center of Stanford University.


Arnold Chang and Michael Cherney's collaboration series exhibited at Sotheby’s S|2 Gallery in New York, 2016

During a nearly decade-long art career in the States, Cherney has completely experienced both academic and market development in the Western art world. Discovered by Western academic institutions, represented in first-tier galleries, and promoted by international auction houses, Cherney’s works were gradually recognized by Chinese contemporary art curators. He has participated in multiple exhibitions curated by prominent scholars including Pi Daojian, Wu Hongliang, Wang Chunchen, and Yu Yang. Last year at the first Jinan International Biennale at Shandong Art Museum, eight handscrolls from Cherney’s Ten Thousand Li of the Yangzi River series were featured in CCTV-1’s Morning News.


CCTV Report of The First Jinan International Biennale


Fascinated by Chinese cultural history, this Western artist journeyed to China to create photography rooted in the traditional Chinese artistic lineage. The return of his work to the West has sparked a profound discussion in global contemporary art about the boundaries of Chinese contemporary art. After decades of travel, Cherney’s work has been recognized for its significance and impact. Eventually, the artist returned to and settled in China.


Artist Michael Cherney (Photography by 阿戈)


Cherney’s journey with his work is just like the title of Bounded by Mountains: the Chinese title comes from Song Dynasty poet Lu You’s poem Traveling to the Village of Shanxi: bounded by mountains and water, doubting if there’s a way out, willow in the shadow and flowers in the sunlight, all of a sudden a village appears in the vision; the English title came from the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592): what of a truth is bounded by these mountains and is falsehood to the world that lives beyond? No matter it’s the layers of mountains, willows, and flowers, or the mountain beyond the mountain, they all point to the convolutions and changes that occur when crossing boundaries, and can be seen as a way to summarize Cherney’s artistic practice across borders, mediums, and artistic categories.

*The two sutra-style albums from Michael Cherney's Bounded by Mountains series are exhibited in FQM's Summer Group Show: Yet, Only Voice Echoed. Bounded by Mountains series debuted in 2005-06, which mount as Cherney's earliest series, now include more than 30 artworks.



Summer Group Show: Yet, Only Voice Echoed

Time:3 July - 21 August, 2021

Location:Fu Qiumeng Fine Art丨65 E 80th Str, Grd Flr, NY, NY 10075

July 26, 2021