Galen Cheney

dp:  Galen, you moved from Vermont to North Adams MA. Have you been enjoying your time there?

gc:  North Adams is a great little community. It’s had its ups and downs to be sure, and the closing in 1985 of Sprague Electric (now the site of MASS MoCA) devastated the local economy. But the museum, and particularly its program, Assets for Artists, is a huge support for artists. As a result, lots of artists continue to move here and art is now a driving force in the culture and economy.

dp:  You weren’t from New England though?

gc:  I was born in Los Angeles because my parents happened to be living out there for a few years, but we moved back to New England when I was 2. We have deep roots here. I do feel the pull of Los Angeles, though, and wonder how different my life might have gone had we stayed there. I like a lot of the painting I see coming out of Los Angeles and would love to figure out how to get connected to that community.

dp:  Were you avid about making art in your youth? Did you have a family that encouraged it?

gc:  Like most artists, I was a kid who made pictures and just never stopped making them. My mother was a big contemporary art lover and art patron to local artists. She attended art history lectures, bought LOTS of art books and dragged the whole family to museums. Implicit in this was an understanding that the path of an artist was a valid one. She was always supportive and excited to see what I was making. 

dp: So, you knew as a college freshman, you were on the path to some kind of artistic career?

At Mount Holyoke I double majored in Studio Art and Italian. When I entered college, I knew I wanted to take art classes, but I wasn’t clear about an art career. I chose a liberal arts school for a broader education.  I knew I wanted to learn Italian and spend my junior year in Florence. That experience had a profound influence on me in every way. It marked the beginning of my interest in archaeology and ancient cities. I feel like that sensibility, of buried histories, decaying glory, European art and architecture, still informs the way I approach my work–building up, breaking down, showing the process of making a painting, from ambitious ideas to failed paths. I want the process to be evident in the finished painting, not covered over or prettied up. I think this is something that appeals to me in the work of artists I most admire. I have an intimate experience with an artist, a sense of immediacy and being present with that artist, when their hand is visible in the work. When I can see what color was layered over which other color, which direction and speed a mark was made, it puts me in the shoes of that artist, in the moment when that work was being made. It could be a 500-year-old painting, but I am there, in the studio or in the field with that artist, smelling the turpentine, feeling the air. Time collapses and I feel that connection. For me, painting has the power of time travel.

I entered graduate school after climbing the corporate ladder in NYC for a few years. That experience made clear to me that I needed to get serious about making art. My time at MICA in Baltimore was like a two-year artist’s residency. I was free to pursue whatever I wanted. Apart from a couple of art theory and criticism classes, there was no formal instruction; we had our own studios, mentors, and critiques with visiting artists and critics. By design, it was as unlike school as possible and it was up to us to do the work or not. I worked a lot. I made a lot of very bad paintings. More than anything, that experience made it clear to me that I wanted it enough and was disciplined enough to make a life as an artist. Thirty years later I am still at it.  

dp: They have very good programs at MICA. It sounds like a great environment for making art, getting down to making a lot of work and becoming totally absorbed in your process does make time disappear, or at least open up. Travel to other places and culture can have a similar effect, your time in Italy was no doubt formative as well.

gc: Yes, in 2015, I was fortunate enough to be able to spend three months in China at an artist’s residency. It was probably the most productive and potent period I have had as an artist. My sense of awe, combined with a feeling of dislocation and otherness fueled weeks of furious, wide open, anything goes art making. I worked mostly with Chinese papers, both found and purchased, and inks, and made collages and paper constructions by ripping, folding, scrunching, and gluing. Something inside me was stripped away, recalibrated, and reinserted. I was levitating.  

dp: That I would like to see...

gc:  It’s safe to say that my experience in China set the course for my work going forward. Feeling that exposure and vulnerability and making new work inside that space, was pivotal. I feel more confident as a result; I can more readily go to that stripped down place of openness, which is where I make my best work. It doesn’t happen every day; the walls are still there, but it’s easier to recognize them and step through them.

dp: Your visit to China must have provided new materials and techniques for your work there. I know that your previous works experimented with urban approaches like spray paint and graffiti, but this residency work must have altered both your concepts and materials.

gc:  The only materials I took with me to China were my favorite brush and two white Krink graffiti markers. The only expectation I had for my work there was to explore the gorgeous papers and inks there. When I arrived at my studio, the previous occupant had left canvas, stretchers, and oil paint.  Being impatient to get to work, I used the materials that were left there. Take a Girl to China, which is featured here, was the first painting I made during that residency. After a month of painting, I was anxious to start working with paper and ink. Masterful Chinese ink paintings were everywhere, and though I admired them greatly, I didn’t feel a connection with them in terms of how I wanted to approach the medium.

dp: The work is becoming very sculptural in these pieces. Did the slicing, dicing and weaving of the current work in your large collage on canvas pieces begin in the residency, or did you already begin to develop a collage aesthetic prior to the China visit?

gc:  As you mentioned, I had been looking at a lot of graffiti, and in 2010 I began exploring ways to combine the graphic sensibility and neon punch of graffiti with the painterly Abstract Expressionist approach to painting that I had been practicing for years.  I began working on wood panels to better evoke the feeling of a wall; the panels could also withstand my gluing, stapling, nailing and scratching into the surface. This is when I began working with a collagist’s mind in earnest. Working on multiple-paneled pieces allowed me to shuffle the order of the panels–a precursor to what I do now with canvas paintings–ripping them up and rearranging the pieces to keep the process alive and me off balance. My committed approach to rip, cut, glue, and weave canvas paintings reflected my desire to continue in the spirit of the work I had made in China, but with the more durable materials of canvas and other textiles.  It has been years of experimentation with different materials and techniques, and I have to say that the work I’ve done on that body of work has made me more confident as a painter and made even my more straightforward painting more joyful and less fraught. Knowing that I can always rip a painting up and use it another way lessens my fear of taking risks.

 dp:  The charcoal drawings appear to be the models for the more Futurist/Vorticist vision that appear in a lot of your current work. These drawings and the current collaged paintings have real energy and focus. The later collaged paintings have more density and texture than the straight-out paintings. The paintings seem to open into a less dense atmosphere; they concentrate more on composition and color, while they still have spontaneity and opportunity for surprises. The collages no doubt allow for more unknown and unseen events that have no premeditated outcomes. Both bodies of work are very powerful. I assume that you work on multiple pieces simultaneously, can you talk a bit about how your studio practice works for you? 

gc: The Spirit Drawings came about during the pandemic. Before getting to the studio, I walk in the woods every morning with my dog and spend a lot of time looking at sunlight filtering through trees.  Those drawings are a direct result of those observations.  The first paintings that I did with that idea of an energy radiating out from a center are from 2018 (Emanator and The Heart Knows What the Eye Can’t See).  Both the idea and the composition felt powerful to me and carried over into a few other works.

After working for a few years in a slower, process-heavy way, I began craving a return to a faster, more expressive way of working that focused more on drawing, color, and paint. I bought some jars of Flashe, a water-based, vinyl paint that I had first seen used by Susan Rothenberg in the 80’s. This material, which is super matte and dries very quickly, has opened up yet another way of painting for me. I’m painting really fast, but also able to use fine brushes for delicate lines.  I am on a serious painting high.

Galen Cheney has been painting professionally for 30 years. After receiving her MFA from the Maryland Institute, College of Art, she lived in Italy before crisscrossing her way across the US doing a variety of jobs, from magazine editor to bronze foundry carver to teacher, tutor, mentor, custom framer, and massage therapist, all the while continuing to paint. She is now working exclusively as an artist. Galen has received numerous awards and fellowships for her painting, including a nomination for a Joan Mitchell Foundation grant, and inclusion in the prestigious publication, New American Paintings.  She has received fellowships to attend residencies at the Millay Colony, the Vermont Studio Center, and Da Wang Culture Highland in Shenzhen, China.  Most recently she attended a residency at the Studios at MASS MoCA. In 2019 she received a North Adams Project grant from Assets for Artists, a program affiliated with MASS MoCA.  

Galen has exhibited her work throughout the U.S. and in Italy, Canada, France, and China. Her work is in collections throughout the world, and she is currently represented by Khawam Modern and Contemporary in West Palm Beach and David Richard Gallery in New York, where she had a solo exhibition in 2021. She lives and makes her work in North Adams, Massachusetts.