Constructing Paintings: There Is No Formula. The Collaged Paintings of Galen Cheney

Galen Cheney’s richly layered paintings embody a curiosity about materials, abstraction and her own psyche. Her exploration of these subjects manifest in complex spaces where bold colors, lines and shapes converge, creating intense energy that emanates from the canvas. 

Andrea Burgay talks with Galen for The Weird Show. They discuss the evolution of Galen’s collaged paintings, paintings on canvas that are born of a “collage sensibility” and the influences that have shaped these works.

Galen Cheney, Visitation, 2019, acrylic and oil on collaged canvas, 59 x 80”

AB –How do you describe your work?

GC –Process-driven, gritty, raw, energetic, layered, sculptural, authentic, honest, jittery, beautiful, complex, open-ended, searching, challenging, unfolding, evolving, spiritual, investigative, muscular, bold, vulnerable, emotional, emanating.

Galen Cheney, Quasar, 2021, acrylic and canvas collaged on canvas, 71 x 62.5″

AB –Can you share a bit about your background? What experiences have been most influential on your work and processes?

GC –I like to say I’m from Los Angeles because it sounds more exotic, and while I was born there, my family moved back to New England when I was two. My family has been there for 400 years, and my ancestor Susannah Martin was hanged as a witch in Salem in 1692. And while I have lived abroad and out west, I keep coming back to this region where my roots run deep. I have an affinity for the landscape and villages of New England that lives inside me and keeps me here. 

That said, it has been my experiences away from the familiar that have most impacted my work. My first trip to Italy when I was 14 blew my mind wide open, as travel is meant to do. It shifted my sense of what the world was and my place in it. In particular, the sight of Pompeiian frescoes and lava cast remains of the citizens of Pompeii fleeing for their lives seared itself onto my deepest consciousness. I think that experience of ancient beauty and decay still informs my work today. My years after college in New York City turned me on to urban energies and graffiti, which is a sensibility that I continue to draw on through my use of spray paint, fluorescent color, and collage. My time in graduate school at the Maryland Institute College of Art was instrumental in my understanding that I really did want to be a painter, a good painter, and that I had the discipline, drive, and introvert inclinations to do the solitary work to achieve that.

Galen Cheney, Interpreter of Dreams, 2020-21, textile color, acrylic, oil, and glitter on collaged canvas, 63 x 82”

AB –Your collaged paintings involve constructing, deconstructing and reinventing your own paintings into new forms. Can you describe the process of making a recent work of this kind? What is important about this process?

GC –The work I am doing that excites me the most is this type of collaged or assembled painting. Each piece is unique, and while I have trusted methods that I have developed over time, there is no formula — it’s different every time. 

I have a large inventory in my studio of scraps, strips and fragments of old or abandoned paintings and drawings, fabric samples, or color/visual ideas and sketches that I have made and collected over many years. Sometimes I will begin a piece by pulling from these mountains of material and making arrangements on the floor to get some ideas going. Once I get something that feels like it might have legs, I begin adhering the pieces together and eventually get it up on the wall to see what I have. From there I continue the process, ripping pieces back off, attaching others, going in with paint, paper, ephemera, whatever is called for. In a new piece, Interpreter of Dreams, I actually cut slits into the painting and wove strips throughout it, letting those pieces come up off the surface of the painting and hang off the bottom.

Even if I eventually stretch a painting, I almost always work on unstretched, raw canvas because it allows me to develop the size and shape of the painting as I go. This open-ended approach keeps my mind open to possibilities through the course of making the painting.

Galen Cheney, Emanator (side one), 2019, acrylic, oil pastel, and paper on collaged canvas, 72 x 63″
Galen Cheney, Emanator (side one), 2019, acrylic, oil pastel, and paper on collaged canvas, 72 x 63″
Galen Cheney, Emanator (side two), 2019, acrylic and oil pastel on collaged canvas, 72 x 63″

AB –How did this process originate or evolve?

GC –I had an artist residency in China for two months in 2015. It was the most concentrated, productive and creative two months I have ever had. This may have been due in part to my profound sense of dislocation and otherness. I loved my time there, but it was disorienting in every way. This was good for my art. Also, the most beautiful papers imaginable were available in abundance and very inexpensively, by our standards. I began combining mulberry papers and traditional papers used in Chinese New Year celebrations with discarded papers I found that were covered with handwritten Chinese lettering. I brushed ink into these pieces, built them up with strips, drew with tape, etc. I just went for it with abandon. The work was exciting and fresh, and when I returned home, I set about applying the ideas I had developed in China to the more durable material of canvas. I have been on that path ever since.

Galen Cheney, Ca’ D’Oro, 2021, gold leaf, acrylic, glitter and oil on collaged canvas, 71 x 61″

AB –In a recent interview, you talked about the accumulation of components in one of your works as fragments from different times. Are the themes of time and memory important to your work?

GC –Not so much now, I don’t think. When I collage fragments of earlier works into a painting it gets me thinking about what was happening in my life and work when I made that earlier painting. But that’s a personal memory to me. However, there was a period when I was making work directly related to graffiti and decay where I included old concert or airline tickets, newspaper, antique calligraphy, photographs, etc. That work was all about time, memory and decay. 

I think my current work has more to do with being present or timeless.

Galen Cheney, Blue Diva, 2021, acrylic and liquid textile color on canvas, 73 x 36″

AB –You also make paintings that are not physically collaged, but display a “collage sensibility.” Can you share more about his idea and how these two different approaches to your work play off of, or complement each other?

GC –I have a few bodies of work that I pursue simultaneously. One is the collaged paintings; another is straight oil painting on stretched canvas, and the third falls somewhere in between. For this hybrid work, I begin on unstretched, raw canvas, and stain it in a freeform random way with liquid textile color. Rather than assembling or collaging pieces to make the whole, I use one single piece of canvas.  

However, I like my work to have a sense of depth and a layered appearance. In contrast to the actual physical layering of the collaged works, these paintings achieve that sensibility through the use of masking tape, tonal choices and sharply defined edges which appear to float above more amorphous areas. Paintings made this way are more straightforward and allow me to focus more on color and composition. I am actively working now to make work that is less complex and has more room to breathe.

Galen Cheney, Untitled, 2021, textile color and flashe on canvas, 66 x 55″

AB –Your works have a great deal of what I would describe as a whirling or pulsating energy. What are you channeling while you work? Do you draw on any specific experiences or emotional states?

GC –Painting is a mystery, at least for me it is. That may sound like a cop out, but one of the main reasons I paint is to enter into a (mental? spiritual?) state where I become unaware of my body, and any mind noise, insecurities or worries fall away. Artists know this feeling. So, the energies that inhabit my paintings are reflections of what’s going on inside me. It’s interesting, I was recently looking at my work from 2010 to about 2016, and it was very much about forms, shapes, energies converging and twisting together. These paintings have weight and gravity. And for the past few years it’s been more about energy emanating out from a center. The new work feels less earthbound — more about what is felt and perceived, and less about what can be touched or held. What this says about my own emotional state, I am not sure.

Learn more about Galen Cheney on her website and her instagram profile.
Also Galen is having a show in NYC opening July 21st.
David Richard Gallery
July 21st – August 13th
Opening reception is July 21st,
4 – 7pm 211 E. 121st St. New York

Galen Cheney, Taking Flight, 2020, textile color, glitter glue and acrylic on canvas, 76 x 60″
Galen Cheney in studio 2016
Galen Cheney, Barcelona, 2020, Acrylic, spray paint, metal leaf, and paper on collaged canvas, 68 x 56″
Galen Cheney, Perceiver, 2019, Acrylic, glitter, grommets and oil on collaged canvas, 71 x 60″