Many of us, when viewing a given landscape, have thought it almost as good as a painting, in which case the artist has the advantage of being able to imagine an idealized version of the scene and to paint it with details that support his aesthetic vision. Qiu Mai (Michael Cherney), on the other hand, has spent years seeking to prove the converse of that proposition, believing that nature and photographs of it are in fact at least the equal of a painting if not superior to it. His images are the result not of manipulation of the negative to yield the results he seeks but rather of capturing the right scene at the right time and then enlarging that image so the natural grainy effect approximates the brush and ink work of a painting.
The top image here was shot in northern China, taken during winter when there is less foliage and the structure of the trees and earth are more visible. The leafless foreground trees create strong silhouettes set against the snow-filled valley while the eroded loess soil of the surrounding hills traces in its divisions the courses taken by water as it flowed downward. Enlargement of the original negative blurs some areas so as to approximate the use of ink wash in a painting, transforms the distant trees and shrubs into the dottings common in ink painting, and yields trees the structure of which cries out to be identified as brushwork. The result is a photograph that could well represent a detail of a large painting such as that attributed to Kung Hsien (cat. 12).
The lower, round fan-shaped photograph, was taken in Zhangjiajie National Park in Hunan province. Taken in a more southern area of China, the climate is different, warmer and moister, evidenced especially in the mist out of which the rock pinnacles protrude. If the previous fan suggests comparison with a 17th century painting, this work finds direct prototypes in 13th century paintings of the late Southern Song dynasty, the mist-filled creations done by such artists as Yujian and Xia Gui.
It seems clear that Qiu Mai’s subjects are not landscapes per se, or limited only to the immediate scene before us, but are specifically chosen scenes that sparked his art-historical imagination as well; as viewers, we are invited and even required to admire not the physical scene itself but rather the relationship between his rendition of that scene and various highlights of the long history of painting in China. One interesting question about this approach and procedure is: wherein lies the art? During the late 19th-early 20th century many artists realized they could not compete with the camera in reproducing a given scene and thus turned away from realism and its implacable demands. The present photographs reproduce actual scenes—and thus can be termed realistic—but the extreme magnification transforms those images and the result makes strong appeals to our imaginations and emotions rather than our intellects, our conscious appreciation of reality, but in the present case it is the relationship that obtains between those images and historical styles of painting that constitute the heart of Qiu Mai’s art. It may seem anomalous to mention conceptual art in this context, but the truth is that it is the concept, the idea, embodied in these images those forces us to reconsider the basic nature of art itself.
Michael Cherney was born in New York in 1969. He studied Chinese and East Asian history at the State University of New York at Binghamton, and studied further at the Beijing Language Institute. He has lived and traveled extensively in China for the last twenty-some years. Although the grandson of a photographer, Charles Hoff, who worked for the New York Daily News and is remembered yet today for his iconic photograph of the explosion of the Hindenburg in Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1937, Michael is self-taught in the art. His continuing explorations of China and Chinese art now include the practice of calligraphy and seal carving, the study of which he began nine years ago.
Cherney’s works are held at present in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Getty Research Institute, Princeton University Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museum, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and the Chengdu Contemporary Art museum, among others.