Background and Early Exhibitions
Winning the Hong Kong Young Artist Grand Prize in 2012, followed by a solo show at Art Basel Hong Kong one year later at the age of 27, Cheng’s recognition has been unhesitating. His combination of irreverence grounded in classical traditions, his blending, blurring and re-casting of ancient and modern, seasoned with an ethos of directness, honesty and enquiry, made him an immediate force on the Hong Kong arts scene.
He was educated at school and at university in Hong Kong, graduating in Fine Arts from the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2008, obtaining a master’s degree in Visual Arts, Studio and Extended Media from the Hong Kong Baptist University five years later.
He is avidly collected by both western and Chinese individuals, and his works may be seen in corporate settings too, forming part inter alia of the collections of Bank of China (HK), Philippe Charriol Foundation, Cliftons Ltd, Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, The Peninsula Shanghai Waitan Hotel.
Notable series of works include Cerulean, Lui’s Solution of Concocted Herbal, and his solo show at Art Basel Hong Kong 2013, in which surprising combinations of ancient and modern (such as Michael Jackson in a landscape of Song dynasty painting) were arranged and harmonized on plywood boards.
The first person in his family to become an artist, Halley Cheng experiments, sets new directions and applies varied solutions to his distinct themes.
The Tree as an Object, a Theme and a Person
Cheng’s work is diverse both in media and subject matter, and yet there are themes which are constant. Trees have become a symbolic thread running through Halley’s oeuvre. Addressing his Cerulean series: “Schools are like trees; they show greater strength and a greater depth of longevity as they age and mature. It’s not something we can find in other architecture.” Later, his hydroponic works (such as Carnivorous Island, exhibited in 2016’s Futuristic Ink exhibition at the Liang Yi Museum, which formed part of that year’s Hong Kong Culture Festival) brought real life vegetation bursting through canvas to form a self-feeding, vital loop, a commentary on independence versus interdependence. Larger pieces in mixed media including A Tree in Jordan Valley Park, A Tree in Austin Road (380cm x 360cm) and many of his Lui’s Solution of Concocted Herbal series – all depict trees.
The tree links the viewer to three strong themes of Halley’s work, one being his relationship with (and reaction to) classical Chinese painting, the second being his mounting frustration with the political situation in Hong Kong, and the third his fascination with scenes which may be construed as surreal or unbelievable. Playfully sketching trees as part of his Lui’s… Concocted Herbal series, Cheng is able to combine classical motifs from imperial medical texts with what he describes as “dubious descriptions from the internet.” This jokey juxtaposition of ancient and modern has the tree as its mascot.
His emphasis on life-size trees transfers an imprint of his own personal life force into classical language. As the artist controls the world in his painting, the life-size tree becomes an insertion of himself into the empty space, a contemporary arrival into a classical scene.
Thus the tree becomes both a symbol of eternality and of modernity, architectural and personal; stolid yet bursting with life. In the artist’s words: “When I paint the trees, I am responding to the core values and symbols of Chinese paintings. Chinese paintings have a formula, a language which it is possible to learn and even master, whether you are Chinese or not. It’s actually a universal language.”
Cerulean: Symbols of Permanence
His Cerulean series, described by Galerie Ora-Ora Co-Founder, Henrietta Tsui-Leung, as “nostalgic, poetic, comforting… with the power to invoke personal reflections,” documented those overlooked architectural mainstays of Hong Kong society: schools and churches. Here, in reaching at underappreciated symbols of social cohesion, Cheng subtly probed those points where the individual forms a first contact with their community, where collective and personal memories are shaped. The buildings appear in delicate watercolour form, permanent and yet ethereal, the gentle genesis of all social interaction. Universally recognizable and yet true to Hong Kong, the images were acclaimed by leading art critics such as John Batten, who wrote to Cheng: “Your paintings are strong and perfect as a centre from which to begin again.” In retrospect, we may say that Cerulean was the preliminary unveiling of Cheng’s ongoing and developing engagement with the social fabric of Hong Kong, using the schools and churches as a symbol of a starting point, a beginning, where open and fresh minds are brought to learn the knowledge, the experience, the prejudices and the techniques that they apply in all aspects of later life, professional, political and social.
Commenting on the choice of cerulean as the title of the exhibition and the predominant colour of a number of his paintings from the series, Cheng remarked, as if in commentary on this unique mix of personal and collective memory: “It seems that every school that we see could be represented by a colour. My favourite are those in cerulean, with walls that look as plain and austere as a monumental stone slab, as if all their rules and missions are trapped inside them. The primary and secondary schools that I went to were green… Yet I am not painting any green schools; I am honestly a bit tired of them.”
A Meditation on Fake News
Cheng’s most recent work, shown at Art Basel Hong Kong 2017, depicts surreal scenes which appear incredible, and yet are documented, hewn from the rock of real life. These paintings are about his more recent feelings – feelings that the world is marching in the same, perhaps ill-advised direction.
These paintings appear almost miniature beside A Tree in Austin Road, with the artist once again judiciously harnessing scale to assert the philosophy behind the work. Obviating the danger of scale swamping content, Cheng pulls the audience closer into an intimate space of horror or surprise.
In works such as Sport, where Parisian demonstrators are depicted serving a forehand volley on a teargas canister, or Inflatable Horror No. 1, where a decoy army tank is deflated by a grey figure before a sullen, tree-thick horizon, Cheng invites us to meditate on the flipside of that 2017 global phenomenon of “Fake News.” Questions are posed. Not all that horrifies us may be dismissed as fake. And just who is manipulating whom?
Uncertain Times: A Darkening of Tone
Beyond the global, it is the local, Hong Kong, atmosphere that affects him the most. The haunting image of Regina Ip in Woman in Coffin arguably demonstrates a creeping darkness in Cheng’s oeuvre. This work is the natural successor of his 2013 combinations of Transformers and ephemeral modern characters in classical settings, but the mood has evolved: “In Hong Kong we have a sense of insecurity about our future… and our present. This makes me think about uncertainty. And I represent this using extreme examples. Commenting on this evolution of his Hong Kong theme, he remarks: “Churches and schools are symbols of permanence, architectural mainstays with lasting qualities. When I was working on the churches and schools, I felt more calm… now I feel more frustrated.”