Carl Cheng began his studies in art and design at the University of California (Los Angeles, CA) in 1958. There he worked with professors like Don Chipperfield, John Neuhart, Henry Dreyfus and Robert Heinecken, each of whom emphasized material exploration, problem-solving and cross-pollination. In 1964 Cheng received a fellowship to study at the Folkwang School of Art (Essen, Germany), where he experienced a post-Bauhaus pedagogy that placed art and design together with dance, theater and music. Cheng's experience in Germany also gave him his first exposure to life outside Southern California, as well as a viewpoint on racial and cultural politics in the United States that has stayed with him his entire life.
In the mid-60’s Cheng began experimenting with fabricating plastic as a basis for sculpture and photography. His “Landscape Essay” (1966) presents Malibu’s Point Mugu as an unstable and serial location. “V.H.” (1966) is a molded plastic and photographic sculptural film piece that critiques the treatment of America’s veterans during the early years of the Vietnam War. Cheng worked for Charles and Rae Eames—one of their "transformers”—doing models for their exhibitions. He was involved with Experiments in Art and Technology, well known for their 1967-1971 program, "Art and Technology" at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Los Angeles, CA). In 1970, Cheng was one of only a handful of Los Angeles-based artists to be included in curator Peter Bunnell’s landmark 1970 Museum of Modern Art (New York, NY) exhibition, “Photography into Sculpture,” a show described in its original wall text as “the first comprehensive survey of photographically formed images used in a sculptural or fully dimensional manner.”
Cheng has long questioned the role of individuals in a mass media society driven by corporate interests. His registered entity, John Doe Co., which he established in 1967, has served as a means to engage with and at the same time critique corporate culture (in addition to offering the Asian-American artist a sense of anonymity in the face of American Vietnam War-era racism). The use of corporate materials embeds John Doe Co. artworks in the absurdist visual discourse of American consumerism, an aspect of life Cheng continues to question in his art of the present day. John Doe Co.’s nature machines serve, as Cheng writes, to “model nature, its processes and effects for a future environment that may be completely made by humans.”
Cheng’s landmark solo 1975 exhibition at Cal Tech’s Baxter Art Gallery (Pasadena, CA) “Erosions & Other Environmental Changes” included a selection of nature machines as well as an entropic environment complete with insects, live plants, and various “specimen” viewing and delivery devices. “Supply and Demand” (1972), which appeared in the Cal Tech show, comes complete with not only John Doe Co. fabricated machine and base, but also with moss, Venus flytraps, and the flies that feed them, completing a natural feedback loop.
Carl Cheng’s work takes a material and conceptual approach that pushes the boundaries of traditional object making, post-minimalism, systems art, environmental art, and social practice. For nearly six decades, he has produced pioneering works exploring, as Mark Johnstone has written, “technology and nature as levers, one applied to the other, in order to discover and reveal the beautiful wonders of each.” Cheng plays a unique role in the history of American contemporary art practice and the history of art in California.
The work of Carl Cheng (b. 1942, San Francisco, CA) is the subject of a major upcoming survey, curated by Alex Klein of the ICA Philadelphia, in partnership with Roland Wetzel and Stijn Huijts, that will open at the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, PA) in fall 2024, and travel to Tingley Museum (Basel, Switzerland); Bonnefanten Museum (Maastricht, Netherlands); and other institutions TBD. Cheng's work was recently featured in such exhibitions as “Potential Worlds 2: Eco-Fictions” at Migros Museum of Contemporary Art (Zürich, Switzerland); "3D: Double Vision," Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Los Angeles, CA); "Specters of Disruption," de Young Museum (San Francisco, CA); and "Emerald City," K11 Art Foundation (Hong Kong). Carl Cheng's work has been presented in solo exhibitions at Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum (Santa Barbara, CA), LIST Visual Arts Center at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Boston, MA), and ASG Foundation Gallery (Nagoya, Japan). Museum group exhibitions include “The Photographic Object 1970," Le Consortium (Dijon, France); “Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974-1981," (Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CA); "Proof: Los Angeles Art and the Photography 1960- 1980," Laguna Art Museum (Laguna Beach, CA); "Photography into Sculpture," Museum of Modern Art (New York, NY); "Vision and Expression," George Eastman Museum (Rochester, NY). Recent gallery projects include Friends Indeed (San Francisco, CA); Altman Siegel (San Francisco, CA); and Hauser and Wirth (New York, NY). Carl Cheng lives and works in Los Angeles, CA.