Arnold Chang is the only American born and raised artist in the groundbreaking Museum of Fine Arts exhibit, Fresh Ink: 10 Takes on Chinese Tradition. I posted on the exhibit here, asked him for an interview and he graciously agreed. But first, to put his achievements in perspective …
This is what Evan Garza of Time Out Boston had to say about the exhibit:
“The most exciting pairing in the show is Arnold Chang’s response to Jackson Pollock’s “Number 10” (1949). Laid flat, it’s seen the way a Chinese handscroll is traditionally viewed, and also the way Pollock famously worked on his canvases. Chinese ink painting is highly gestural, and Chang’s brushwork mirrors the abstract forms in Pollock’s work. The only Chinese-American in the exhibition, the New York-bred Chang felt it was more appropriate to respond to an American in the MFA collection. It’s a smart move on the artist’s part and a timely one for the museum.”
Right, detail from Number 10, Jackson Pollock, 1949.
This take is from File under Fiber:
“Arnold Chang, a New York native, chose a work by another American, Jackson Pollock, but this juxtaposition is not as strange as it might initially appear. In traditional Chinese ink painting, each brush stroke records every incremental decision made by the artist. Similarly, Pollock created a paint diary, every drip a scribbled record of his choices in color and sequence, and of his every movement over the canvas.
The link between the two artists is further emphasized as Mr. Chang exhibits Mr. Pollock’s painting flat, in another one of those long horizontal cases, rather than hanging it vertically on the wall. The viewer sees it in the same orientation in which the painting was created, and this simple displacement was more affecting than the almost grandiose scale of some of the other works in the show.”
And now time to get up close and personal with Arnold Chang…
1) Tell me about your family and what it was like growing up? Where did you live? Siblings? What were your parents like?
I grew up in New York city, the youngest of three brothers. My father was Chinese and my mother Eurasian–her father was Chinese and her mother was Scottish. My maternal grandfather had studied in Scotland, which is where he met my grandmother, but after they got married he took her back to China. My father came to the US to study engineering at Cornell University. My mother and maternal grandmother left China just before the communist revolution in 1949. My Scottish grandmother never saw her husband again and spent the rest of her days with us in New York. My father worked as an engineer but didn’t enjoy it, so my parents opened an upscale Chinese restaurant that was quite successful. My father also opened a showroom that sold beautifully crafted Chinese furniture. The quality was very good but the price was too high for the market at the time. We grew up speaking English at home. My mom is completely bilingual but my grandmother didn’t speak Chinese (despite having lived in China for decades). I learned Chinese in college.
2) Have you always been artistic as a child? How did your parents feel about that? What profession did they want you to pursue?
I have always liked to draw. I remember sitting on the floor as a child, scribbling and doodling with crayons. In fact, when I think of my “true self” I remember what it felt like to be that child totally immersed in the process of drawing.
3) How did you find your way as an artist?
It took awhile. In New York there are specialized High Schools that you have to take a test to get into. I was accepted to both Music and Art and Bronx Science. I chose to go to Bronx Science because it had a better academic reputation. I went to college at the University of Colorado, originally as a studio art major, but I switched to East Asian Studies and Chinese language. I went to graduate school at UC Berkeley, specializing in Chinese art history. There was always a tension between wanting to do creative work, but also wanting to be practical. I have managed to find a good balance. I went into the business of Chinese art, establishing the Chinese painting department at Sotheby’s and later working in an Asian Art gallery. At the same time I was studying Chinese painting with the great master C. C. Wang (Wang Jiqian).
4) What advice would you give to children? (Are you married? Do you have children?) or to any child who wants to be an artist?
I have one son who is in the luxury car business. My advice is simple: find a career that you enjoy and it won’t feel like work. Also, surround yourself with good people and you will benefit from their vibes.
5) I noticed you received your MA at UC Berkeley in Fine Art. Where did you study as an undergrad and what did you study?
Actually, my MA is in Asian Studies, with a concentration in Art History. I have a BA in East Asian Studies and Chinese from the University of Colorado, Boulder.
6) Tell me about being selected for the MFA Fresh Ink Exhibit. What was that like?
It was a great honor to be selected as the only foreign-born Chinese artist. The irony is that although I was born and raised in the US, I received a more classical education in Chinese art than almost anyone of my generation in China. As you pointed out in your blog entry, my work is among the most “traditional” of all the featured works in the show. There is a beautiful catalogue for anyone who missed the show.
7) What are goals and aspirations at this point in your career?
I have worked very hard to establish myself as an authentic, classically-trained, traditional painter of Chinese ink landscapes. There is nothing in my work to this point that has not evolved directly from the great works of the Chinese old masters. On the other hand, I am a thoroughly modern American who grew up during the tumultuous 60s and 70s. As I continue to create, I am encouraging myself to find a way to allow more and more of my American psyche to come through my work in a way that continues to honor the classical Chinese tradition I have spent so many decades mastering.
8) What is the significance of the “Fresh Ink” show for us art neophytes?
“Fresh Ink” was a particularly important show because it was the first time that a major museum organized an exhibition that specifically focussed on ink painting by contemporary artists, as well as exploring several ways in which contemporary Chinese artists are informed by the art of past masters. By exhibiting the old works alongside the new ones viewers were given an opportunity to see these connections in a very direct way. My choice of Jackson Pollock as a model was an attempt to coax modern audiences into recognizing the abstract qualities inherent to classical Chinese painting. It was also a way for me to integrate the American and Chinese sides of my identity.
To learn more about Arnold Chang, please click here.
p.s. I have another post on Arnold Chang here.
“The landscape imagery of Arnold Chang is not to be found on this earth, but the subtle beauty of his brushwork leaves one longing to visit such a place.”
Julia F. Andrews and Kuiyi Shen, A Century in Crisis