“We live in our separate cubicles.
Day and night, months upon years.
Mormons came and Buddha knocked.
The minds spell forsaken,
And miles their way at large.”
- an excerpt from Erik Cheung’s 2011 poem “Cubicles”
I believe that if an art is to have a value, the works must show an evolution; this growth, captured within, makes the art alive. Foundation gives substantial grounds to build upon. My art follows the subconscious lead while being faithful to the use of lines and shapes. - Erik Cheung
Is it possible for something to be formless?
Erik Cheung has dedicated his life to wading those waters between dream and reality and makes this state of curious nirvana available to you with his art.
When I experience Cheung’s art I can hear both the trumpets of angels that lift me high as well as hellish moans from the more vengeful and frightening pieces that pull me into darkness. There is an element of good and evil not lost.
Direction is consistent and inspiring with a cohesive path throughout his years that showcase the peak talent of someone who can master reality. This work reaches out past the simple perception of the abstract and tackles meaningful questions like what will happen to us after life.
I find when it comes to mortality that sculptures like “Burial” and “Spirits” best convey these queries.
The subconscious isn’t something Cheung experiments with, instead it is a necessary part of his process where his art is birthed into existence.
Without setting forth with a specific image or feeling in mind, Cheung discovers what he is creating. He is shown it intuitively and uses his own experience to uncover and unlock what is meant to be.
His style is unique and bares a raw talent that takes moments of your life from your possession, immortalizing a piece of you within the arts brilliance. If you look close enough into the artwork of an Erik Cheung piece you can see the subconscious of all those who have gazed before you and left a piece of themselves within, blissfully unaware they are being watched and studied.
Fortune recently smiled on me and gave me the opportunity to ask Cheung some questions about his art.
My favourite piece of yours is Prayer although it leaves me feeling low. I get feelings of despair and hopelessness like there is no one hearing the figure's pleas. I can almost see the tear on the face of the paintings main focus. Is hopelessness what you were going for?
Spring of 2018 was the time my mother passed away. I think that explains a lot.
Since the preliminary lines were laid subconsciously, I was not consciously aware of the symbolic meaning behind. I actually was working on 'The Last Breath' in her presence when she was still deciding whether or not to go on with another round of chemo.
Not knowing that the work was a revelation of what was to come, this is scary!
The other piece, 'The Last Ritual', was definitely after the burial since the release of the dove/pigeons is a solid memory of the funeral. However, there is still this mysterious reason for the coming together of these lines, and in speed, to depict the event.
Back to your point, it is not that much of hopelessness as the regret in what I wish I had talked more with her when she was around.
Interesting how the fingers and hand turned out with the distant figure still and solid on the side. It was just a sudden realization of "Hey, these shapes are fingers!" I have learned from this piece to always be looking out for possibilities and then accepting them.
With your 2017 – 2019 Subconscious Expression pieces I feel a strong cosmic aspect that almost questions reality. Looking back on this work, how do you explain it?
That is probably due to the white dots you see all over. Stars, I'd say.
I have this concept of design rooted in my teachings, (ie. dots, lines and shapes being the basic elements.) This explains the underlying academic focus in my work.
I constantly pay attention to contrast, texture, balance...etc. These were always mentioned in the lessons taught. As time goes by, these became integral elements of concern as I create art. I sometimes hate myself for being too cognitive and conscious in the creative process. I have begun to 'let things go' a bit to address the charisma part of the equation.
There is a lot of religious imagery in your work. are you a religious person?
I have been an Anglican at heart. I studied in an Anglican elementary and high school and this has got to be an influence somehow.
I taught in a Catholic school for 15 years and made my decision to finally be baptized when I came back to Canada almost a decade ago.
It may sound cliche, but religion does make me see the greatness of life. As I get older and see how small and short human life is, I am more attracted to the idea of reaching for something higher. I do not know if this is religion, but I trust that there be some validity towards the spiritual works throughout the centuries.
From your abstracts, realism, to your sculptures and poetry? Which art form do you enjoy creating the most?
Poetry came as an outlet. Because English is not my first language, I realized I have limited vocab for the job. Sculpture takes space to produce. I had an art room when I was teaching and was able to create a mess. If I had the luxury to own a studio here, I am sure I would produce more.
On the line of abstraction and realism, I find myself swinging back and forth to find an equilibrium. Throughout history of art, there has been this pendulum at work that swings from end to end.
Now that you asked, I prefer neither. Abstraction is too free and it seems that every work is valid and unless character/personality is achieved, it is a mere pretty shell. Realism however is too solid in presentation. What you see is what it must be. I think both are trying to achieve that persona level.
What made you get back into art full time?
I am not a full time artist yet, however I produce 2-3 hours a day.
I am glad I got out of the teaching profession. Being a teacher, I must think for the students' progress first. And even in my spare time, I flipped art magazines to come up with art projects that would spark their creativity. Now my bill paying job during the day is very much a hands on one that does not require too much brain power. When I get off work, I still possess ample energy and a piece of mind to continue with my mission.
Travel has been an important aspect to your life, how much of an impact do you think it has on your art?
Travelling gave me a worldly view of different cultures and seeing the real art in person is like learning from the Masters. I remember the first time I saw Bernini's terracotta sculpture sketch exhibiting in Seattle. I was enlightened immediately. The magic of depth and presence came across and I made one as I returned to UVic. I sold immediately to a friend that very summer.
How did you get turned onto the idea of Automatic Drawing?
Looking at the millions of art works today, I feel lost. 20th century art is diverse and this is a time of enjoyment. Each period challenges the last by introducing new perspectives and I see a missing link in this relay. The knowledge and development passed down from generations suddenly disappeared. That is why I retraced the steps and ended up with the Surrealist movement.
Automatic drawing brought about doodle art and so it seems. The origin is different, the former comes directly from the psyche while the latter is cognitive in nature. Zen art comes close yet the many I see stop at patterning. I tried the zen drawings with my students with influence by suggestions…but that is another story.
Your art has been sold to collectors in the U.S., Canada, U.K. and Hong Kong. Is there an element of pride that comes from getting interest outside your own country or is it the same thrill no matter who buys it?
It is all the same. Vanity is not a good thing if one indulges into the good feeling. I merely wish to reveal what I have discovered and push it further. It is a hindrance academically, I think.
A past student wrote that she likes the Empress so much that she doesn’t even know where to begin. It made me happy that the hard work is being appreciated. This support is worth more than a mere few hundred dollars. But of course knowing my work is presently on a collector’s wall certainly gives a sense of achievement. On the flip side, it could be an end to that piece if the inheriting party cares less of the time and effort that went into it and donate it to goodwill one day! So, each piece I now do, I treat it with more care and love than previously. It is an upgrade to guarantee a future for the piece.
You reside in Edmonton, Alberta which is my home town, does the city influence your art at all?
Wow, imagine the chances! Life never ceases to amaze me. Having lived for 50 odd years, I have come to realize that we are destined to be in a certain place at a certain time. I picked up the aboriginal graphic art influence living in BC for 4 years. I came across calligraphy (both Eastern and Western style) when I was the teacher leading the interest group.
I was introduced to Janvier’s art here in Edmonton 8 years ago affirming my dedication to lines. Edmonton does provide me with a stable distant space to develop my art instead of being bombed by the many -isms either in the East coast or the West.
The catch is not having the right connections and the art market here is still very much prone to landscapes.
Cheung’s work spans not just from the abstract but beyond and into realism, even escaping canvas chains to paint on glass or sculpt.
His art pushes the limits of what can be, what can exist with or without a conscious form.