|Born in Huizhou, Canton Province, China in 1935, Yu-Tian Cheu immigrated to the U.S. in 1962 to pursue his dreams of being an artist. He had always been influenced by the history of Western art. Counting Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, and Pollock among his seminal influences, he had always aspired to come to the West to follow in their footsteps. Cheu arrived in New York in 1962. His early works of the period were characterized by his use of pieces of fabric, which were applied to the canvas surface as a collage, which he then painted over in oil. Similarly, working with raw pigments enabled his work to achieve a unique ambience, and allowed him to develop his signature style that would go on to define his work for decades to come.|
Born in Huizhou, Canton Province, China in 1935, Yu-Tian Cheu immigrated to the U.S. in 1962 to pursue his dreams of being an artist. He had always been influenced by the history of Western art. Counting Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, and Pollock among his seminal influences, he had always aspired to come to the West to follow in their footsteps. Cheu arrived in New York in 1962. His early works of the period were characterized by his use of pieces of fabric, which were applied to the canvas surface as a collage, which he then painted over in oil. Similarly, working with raw pigments enabled his work to achieve a unique ambience, and allowed him to develop his signature style that would go on to define his work for decades to come.
In the 1970s, his style continued to develop. He began creating a series of small works on paper—still employing collage—but limiting his process to a strict set of rules within which to work. By the 1990s and 2000s, Cheu revisited his own cultural heritage, allowing his Asian roots to blend and meld with the abstract expressionist style he had honed in New York during his three decades there. At this point he began looking at Chinese ink paintings, considering the Zen qualities and elements of such work, factors such as composition, energy, timing, and simplicity. He also turned to the Daoist tradition, and reconsidered his own relationship to nature itself. Like the Chinese landscape painters that preceded him, he began to deeply contemplate nature’s harmony and spirit, working to capture their essence. Instead of faithfully rendering these scenes in a naturalistic manner, as had those of the past, he captured their essence through abstraction. He deviated from the traditional Chinese landscape painter’s palette, employing bright, bold hues, in order to capture his ebullient spirit and transitioning emotional states. In fact, he doesn’t merely choose his colors by rationally selecting them from the dicta of color theory, but rather, he does so from his instinctual inner sensations, trusting his own intuition and inner spiritual perceptions to guide him in navigating the world of color: hues, tints, and tones.
According to Sydney Gross, an artist (and Cheu’s former teacher), “[Cheu’s] work has an enormously sensitive, tactile quality combined with a feel for very subtle colors. He uses collage elements in a very dynamic manner, creating constantly varying solutions to formal problems. It is very difficult to find words to describe all the additive factors that combine to produce the mystery that accompanies his work.”
Working on large-scale canvases, Cheu creates works that evidence soft, sensual atmosphere paired with moments of spontaneity and power, splashes of color contrasting against grounds of soft tonal moods and sensations. Take for instance Untitled No. 50, a mixed-media-on-canvas abstraction, consisting of a ground of soft, muted sea foam greens, pinks, peaches, and periwinkles. The colors float like a mist on the surface. Akin to Monet’s impressionist strokes, they seemingly shimmer and dance, delighting the senses with a sprightly flare. There is one patch of a darker aquamarine, over which Cheu splashes white across the surface. In the end, the abstraction evokes the sense of a turbulent sea sloshing up toward the sky as the waves splash against one another, a soft, delicate sunrise just emerging in the distance.
In contrast, Untitled No. 51, a bright, multihued conglomeration of greens, yellows, reds, and blues, is light and bright, a lyrical tour de force evoking a range of comparisons from Kandinsky and Schonberg, modern dance to a fireworks display (which by no coincidence, is a Chinese tradition.) The pigments undulate across the canvas, blending and exploding into each other in bold, yet delicately rendered patches of exhilaration and agitation. Glimmering with sparkling tints and layered over mysterious tones, the work is complex and highly technically proficient, unique in its approach and highly sophisticated in its execution.
Untitled No. 56 is a highly atmospheric masterwork evocative of the powers of nature. In this case we see a diffused cloud-like surface of white and gray pigment applied in a sfumato technique over a black ground with areas of ruby and ochre here and there. The image is not only a testament to the forces and mysteries of nature—evoking a volcano recently erupted—but also, to the spiritual forces of the natural world. Similarly, Untitled No. 16, another example in this series, a glimmering all-over composition, engenders a light-infused, water-like surface, dotted with spots and marks of brown and gray. The luminous composition of soft textures and patterning, boasts a glowing central area, which emerges as if from the interior of the canvas itself, evoking a calm sense of ethereality and peace.
In fact, peace has emerged as a central theme in much of Cheu’s oeuvre. Take for instance, Dove, perhaps his most recognizable ode to this eternal concept. With a ground of abstracted tangerines, blood oranges, and sunny yellows, we see the loose, bold gestures of black line, which converge in a few brief strokes to describe the loose outline of a flying dove. A transparent white fills in the form, its lightness evoking the fluttering wings of the flying creature. A sense of peace floods viewers as they take it in, attesting to its power to evoke joy and freedom, light and liberty.
Ultimately, through his art and life, Cheu has defined himself by his quest for liberty, truth, and peace. Exemplifying the meeting of East and West, his distinctive style is lyrical and refreshing, hearkening a new age in the history of painting. Pushing past his early abstract expressionist influences, he has arrived at a virtuoso moment, impulsive yet wise, untamed yet controlled. Like nature’s force itself, Cheu’s brushwork and instinct resonate with the power and subtlety of the unexplainable. The sense of freedom and peace we experience in looking at these profound images are powerful and compelling, if, like life itself, only fleeting.