NATALIE CHEUNG | Interlocutor Magazine

29 Oct


Oct 25

The darkroom orchestrations of NATALIE CHEUNG

Visual ArtistsMultidisciplinary Artists

Intersections of Light #008, 2022, 30 x 38 in. Color pinhole photograph

Morton Fine Art in Washington, DC, is pleased to announce Made of Light, a solo exhibition of alternative process photography and sculpture by the artist Natalie Cheung. Utilizing time, gesture and much technical expertise, the artist captures lived experience directly onto the surface of her photosensitive paper and microplastic sculptures. Cheung’s second solo exhibition with the gallery, Made of Light will be on view through November 12, 2022.

Interview by Interlocutor Magazine

You’re a formally trained photographer but you no longer own a camera. What was the impetus for you to abandon the processing of images shot with a film camera to a state of pure experimentation with the development process itself?

I started to get away from using a camera when the medium of photography was shifting over to full digital. At that point, I was already burned out from toting a camera everywhere, which prevented me from being in the moment—not to mention the weird looks bystanders would give me if I took a picture of a very compelling stain on the ground.

More importantly, I wanted to get away from taking pictures of stuff and instead wished to capture an experience on paper. Using photography to simply document is like saying Harry Potter is just a regular school kid. There has been so much experimentation in photography since the beginning of the medium. I think of photography as solar alchemy.

Untitled 1, 2021, 42 x 85 in. Silver gelatin chemigram on photo paper, (From “Facsimile” series)

In your “Facsimile” series, you play with light intuitively in a free-associative style that results in “riffs” on prior forms, such as the “nautical wash of a Turner landscape to the relaxed staining of Helen Frankenthaler’s abstractions.” What kind of personal parameters (if any) do you set for determining when one of these works is finished and ready to show?

While composition and tonal range are certainly qualities that attract me to a composition, the idea of my “Facsimile” series is that every outcome I make is, was, or will be, a pattern seen somewhere else in the world—whether created unintentionally in nature or created with intent by the human hand, without ever having seen my work. Think infinite monkey theorem: if you give a monkey a typewriter, infinite time, paper, and ink, eventually the monkey will type lines from Shakespeare. So in this regard, every composition that comes out of my process is important to the concept, regardless of the look.

67 Hours, 2018, 42 x 80 in., Cyanotype photogram on paper, (From “Intermediaries” series)

In your “Intermediaries” series, you use “slow-reacting cyanotype to create abstract works that seem to map islands, river deltas, or erosion itself.” This was also the process originally made to use blueprints. What would you say you’re ultimately commenting on with these works in terms of humanity’s long history of trying to control/tame nature?

You can’t control everything, there’s always a give and take in nature. Humans tend to think that they are omnipotent, but there are always unforeseen consequences to what we do. Think about every time we have introduced a foreign species into an ecosystem in order to solve one problem, but in doing so, created an even bigger one. “Intermediaries” simulate the uncertainty of cause and effect. I set up my artwork and let nature take its course in evaporation, and what I am left with is usually very different from what I thought would be the outcome. And that’s the point.

Model Island 7, 2021, 16 x 16 in. Micro nylon fiber, paper, paint & plaster, (From “Reclaim” series)

Your “Reclaim” sculptures are topographic models of islands constructed from nylon flocking. Could you describe what attracted you to this material and why it’s important to the meaning of the pieces that you construct from it?

I have been attracted to this material since I was a child, as many children have. It’s the same material they use for fuzzy stickers. But also being a microplastic, the flocking is an ideal material to use in artwork about climate change. Microplastic wastewater is a huge problem. That stuff ends up in fish and crops and eventually in the food we eat. And microplastics don’t have to start off as micro—larger plastic items get broken down and crushed into microparticles that go everywhere. I created the “Reclaim” sculptures to be seductive eye candy; people are drawn to the bright color and shiny plastic, as we are programmed to be, namely by our need for water, searching out for it by its shiny glimmers in nature. The sculptures speak to the darker side of our nature in hyper-consumerism and what it’s doing to the environment.

07, 2020. Dimensions and medium variable, (From “Rock. Paper. Scissors.” series)

For your “Rock. Paper. Scissors.” series you are influenced by chuāng huā papercuts, made on sheets of printer paper in honor of the Lunar New Year. You place these designs against a darkroom projector, blowing them up to monumental reliefs captured on photographic sheets. What most appeals to you about the process of enlarging these designs and allowing elements of chance to slip through the shapes?

“Rock. Paper. Scissors.” is everything traditional Chinese paper cutting isn’t, and that’s sort of a reflection of myself. I am American Chinese and, as such, there are expectations from both of those cultural sides and I’m just saying: “No thanks, I’ll find my own way.” The scale of the artworks is large, the shapes are imperfectly cut, but of all my work, R.P.S. is the most intentional artwork I make in terms of the outcome. I carefully lay all my cut shapes onto the photographic paper, but what I can’t predict are all the interactions between the shapes once the light hits the paper. So the outcome does hold an element of surprise for me. Chance is a central theme in all of my artwork, but in the case of R.P.S., it helps illustrate the many unexpected things that happen in our life that ultimately shape our identities.

Intersections of Light #060, 2022, 30 x 38 in. Color pinhole photograph

Since digital has almost entirely taken over the realm of photography, do you view process photography art as a way to maintain the craft of darkroom processing while also transporting it into a medium that both makes it into something new and also pays respect to the long history of film photography?

I have a deep love for the photographic medium. It’s a magic medium that allows people like me (who can’t draw to save my life) a place to be artistic. I think a lot about how photography for me is integrating the process of my darkroom techniques with the concept of my art; it’s not simply the method I chose to print art on. These days, if you print a photograph in the darkroom with traditional subject matter you took with a film camera, there is a certain level of romanticism that is attached to the image, simply because it was created with what is now considered a historical process—and that’s what I’m trying to get away from. The first question I would ask when I see straight photographs printed in the darkroom is: “Why is it important that the photograph was printed in the darkroom?” What I’m trying to get at is thinking beyond photography just as medium; I’m trying to capture its physical experience.

Made of Light will be on view through November 12, 2022 at Morton Fine Art

All images courtesy Morton Fine Art and the artist

Tyler Nesler

Natalie CheungMorton Fine ArtPhotographersPhotographyProcess PhotographySculptureSculptorsExhibitionsSolo ShowsDC Gallery

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