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Qiu Mai (Michael Cherney, b. 1969) 秋麥

‘Sacred Tree on Mount Lu’ 2011

Photographs, ink on xuan paper
Mounted as four-panel screen
182.9 x 213.4 cm. (72 x 84 in.)

(See writeup below.)

All of us have seen many trees, even very tall trees, so why is the visual impact of Michael Cherney’s trees so strong? In large part this results from the point of view, for rather than standing back from the tree and viewing it against a horizontal background, we look almost straight upward, viewing the tree against the background of the open sky. This orientation serves, of course, to emphasize the verticality of the tree as well as the great horizontal spread of its branches but it also results in a very striking composition, with dark and light, solid and empty areas balanced in a manner that is quite different from more usual portrayals of trees.

This tree is one of three sacred trees on Mount Lu, said to have been planted during the Chin dynasty (3rd-4th century) but more likely to date from the Ming during the 16th century. In the presence of such awesome natural phenomena we might experience emotions akin to those we feel in Gothic cathedrals, a consciousness of how we relate to things much larger than ourselves, but I think the best parallel is the redwood groves in Northern California, where, as here, we sense that we are in the presence of some more patient, noble, and gracious entity than we humans.

The artist has contributed these comments on his work. ‘Since the Song dynasty (960-1279), artists in China have created sets of scrolls which are intended to be viewed together. The scrolls depict works of painting or calligraphy that are either related to each other or that, when displayed together, combine to form one continuous work. The method of display is sometimes referred to as ‘sea curtain’ mounting. The Shadow Curtain series (of which the present work is part) applies photography to this aesthetic; a single excerpt is drawn from a 35mm frame of film and is revealed across several scrolls. The folding screen is just another form of mounting/presentation (similar to hanging scrolls). The tree is ideal subject matter to present as a screen because the folds add implications of depth, a three dimensional feel which cannot be achieved by a flat hanging scroll.’

As introduction to the artist, we borrow and reprint here the insightful comments of Jerome Silbergeld, Professor of Chinese Art History at Princeton University. ‘One would be hard-pressed to find a ‘more Chinese’ artist than Qiu Mai (b. 1969). Photographer, calligrapher, and book artist, Qiu Mai’s works is done with the great sophistication that draws on the subtleties of China’s most scholarly and esoteric traditions. Based in Beijing and a successful artist whose works have been collected by The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of Asian Art (the first photographic works ever to enter the collection of that department), Qiu Mai’s art is less provocative than it is intellectually engaging, meditative, and often simply beautiful. What is provocative is his identity: Qiu Mai is the Chinese name for Michael Cherney, born in New York of Jewish parentage. Cherney’s work is the cutting-edge demonstration of artistic globalization: if Asian artists can so readily ‘come West,’ then what is to prevent large numbers of future Western artists from ‘going Asian’? Or like Qiu Mai/ Michael Cherney, going both ways at once, both American and Chinese, modern and traditional.’

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