Galen Cheney is a Vermont-based artist that APP has felt a strong gravitation to lately. Cheney's work is so expressive and complex, yet seems to fit within a multitude of environments. We look forward to placing her work. In the meantime, a conversation...
APP: Galen, we just love your work and have to give a nod to the abstract expressionists that came before you. We are huge fans of Clyfford Still, Betty Parsons, Helen Frankenthaler and Cy Twombly. Want to tell us about some of your favs?
GC: Yes, the Abstract Expressionists are my painting heroes, generally. Their art was their life and vice-versa. My favorites among them are Joan Mitchell and DeKooning. They had a willingness — perhaps even a compulsion — to risk everything in a painting in order to create something meaningful, something new. I admire and aspire to that degree of artistic bravery. Like you, I am also a big Twombly fan, as well as Guston and Diebenkorn. And there are so many good painters working today: Mark Bradford is at the top of my list; I relate to the physicality of his work, his manipulation of non-traditional materials in the service of sublime beauty. A few other contemporary favorites are Cecily Brown, Susan Rothenberg, Leonardo Drew, Julie Mehretu, Bill Jensen, and John Walker. There are really too many to name.
APP: Agree completely. How do you see the changes in your life reflected in your work, particularly in where you have lived? I know you were born in LA and spent time in both MD and MA before settling in Vermont. In terms of street art, and referencing layered urban mark-making, where does this come from?
GC: I have spent a lot of time in Italy, and my first visits there when I was 14 and 15 had an enormous impact on me. Yes, the art that I saw was part of it, particularly ancient frescoes in Pompeii and frescoes in Florence by Giotto and Masaccio, but just as affecting was the ancient history that suffused everything. Witnessing noisy, contemporary life, including the day’s graffiti, within that ancient context affected me deeply.
I am drawn to the enduring human need for visual self-expression. Graffiti, ancient and contemporary, is a rich example of that. These days I spend a lot of time in New York, and even its walls covered in layers of torn-off posters are a turn-on for me. I often employ a similar kind of process in my own work — laying paint on, scraping it off; gluing paper or fabric on, pulling it off. It’s not a planned technique in order to achieve a particular effect, rather it is just a process of working. All those changes of direction in the making of a painting amount to rich and varied surfaces that are a record of the process.
APP: And in 2015 you were a fellow at the Da Wang Culture Highland in China. How lasting of an effect did the residency have on you? I know you took just a brush, ink and a marker, so it seems you were already open to the calligraphic and to using papers more common there. Can you give an example of something gleaned in Shenzhen that inspired a significant influence within your practice?
GC: My time in China continues to strongly inform my work. When I was there I began really focusing on collage as a method for making work. I love scavenging, and I did that, gathering cast-off papers, hand-written notes, paper trash, basically. I combined those with special Chinese papers and passages of ink brush paintings that I was working on. I was energized by the process that I began there and I am continuing to work in that way today, though with painted textiles more often than paper. I love paper, but I am sensitive to the needs of framing paper pieces and wanted to explore more durable materials.
APP: Do you sew outside of using that technique as a manipulation in your work? Can you comment on any feminist concerns you have as an artist? What your work says or ignores?
GC: No, I do not sew! I didn’t grow up in a sewing household, though I recently inherited a friend’s old sewing machine and I am determined to learn the basics. Hand-stitching is such a slow process, and though I like the look of it, the speed of it is at odds with my preferred way of working. And then there’s the feminine association that seems to inevitably arise with stitching. That said, more and more artists — both women and men — are working with thread in various ways and it feels like it is losing that strict association with the feminine or feminist. I am a feminist, though my work is not overtly about that. I just try to make strong paintings.
APP: And you succeed. When did you make your series of "War Paintings?" Are you anticipating more work in this vein given the current turmoil in our world/our own country?
GC: The War Paintings were a response to the bombing of Beirut in 2006. Sadly, since then there have been and continue to be other wars that might have inspired that work. My work is abstract, though I think it has everything to do with the world we are living in. It will never be a narrative of current events. While it embodies the complexities of contemporary life, my work, if successful will rise above the noise. This is the promise of art, to enrich us, engage us, to help us make sense of being human.
APP: You've really shown your work everywhere. Was there a particular place or group of people that you felt just "got" your work?
GC: Mostly it has been other painters that have most appreciated my work. Though now, after many years of tenacious and uncompromising painting, things are beginning to shift and my work is gaining broader recognition and appeal. I am always pushing myself to become a better painter with every painting I make. For me, that struggle, that process of discovery is the whole point. And just maybe the stars are beginning to align.
APP: What is a typical winter day for you?
GC: Coffee first, followed by hauling wood for the wood stove and filling the bird-feeder. If there is time, I’ll do a little reading (right now I am reading the Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead), painting, hiking in the back woods with my dog, Viggo, answering emails, looking online for artist opportunities. There are always chores to do, but I get into my studio (which is in my house) just about every day. I often paint at night, which comes early during winter in Vermont.
To learn more about Galen, please visit her website.