If you believe the clichés, Los Angeles is a place for relentless innovation and personal reinvention. But over the past few years, the Southern California art scene has made its mark by reexamining its past. From the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time initiative to the Hammer Museum’s Made in LA biennial this summer, LA institutions have continually demonstrated the significance of the city’s art history by presenting viewers with historical works by area artists. Concurrent with Made in LA was an exhibition rediscovering the early work of Carl Cheng (b. 1942), known mostly for the public art he has made since the 1980s. On view were some twenty pieces from the 1960s and ’70s that deal with the intersection of nature and technology.
The show was titled “Nature Is Everything—Everything Is Nature,” which spoke more to Cheng’s multidisciplinary approach than to a Zen spiritual inclination. In 1963 Cheng graduated with a BA in art and design from UCLA, after which he studied for a year at the Bauhaus-influenced Folkwang School of Art in Essen, Germany. He returned to UCLA in 1965 for his MFA in sculpture (studying under Robert Heinecken), and participated in the group Experiments in Art and Technology.
During the late ’60s and ’70s, Cheng experimented with materials on an intimate scale. Some of his innovations were photo-based, such as a series of molded plastic sculptures enclosing film images that allude to wartime subjects like tanks and the treatment of injured veterans. Other works had utilitarian applications. Emergency Nature Supply Kit (E.N. Supply No. 271-OJ), 1971, imagines the types of objects one might need to heal nature in the midst of a global environmental crisis. The work includes a patch of grass, a vial of water, an audio recording of birds, and a trippy film of a woman—bedecked in medical scrubs—demonstrating the kit’s use in Japan. A related piece, Supply and Demand (1972), comprises a self-contained ecosystem outfitted with a Venus flytrap, insects, grass, and grow lamps.
Cheng’s striking “nature machines,” which simulate scientific processes, formed the heart of the exhibition. These include his “Erosion Machines” (1969)—plexiglass aquariums lit by black lights and featuring streams of water wearing down neon-painted rocks—and “Specimen Viewers” (1970), colorful acrylic cases housing vacuum-formed plastic devices that illuminate slides of faux-organic material. The two bodies of work bear a formal resemblance to Paul Thek’s mid-1960s “Technological Reliquaries”—realistic wax sculptures of meat and of human body parts, encased in brightly colored plexiglass. But while Thek, with his abject sculptures, critiqued the commercial aesthetics of Pop artists and Minimalists, Cheng took up some of those same artists’ ideas, with his kits, his tendency to work in series, and his mirroring of industrial modes of production by creating the pseudonymous John Doe Company (a solo enterprise under whose name he continues to make work today).
While the exhibition was useful in exposing Cheng’s early work to art audiences, subsequent shows will hopefully go further by contextualizing his practice among those of his peers and his forerunners or in relation to his later trajectory. Cheng’s interest in technology and his John Doe alias could be considered alongside fellow Californian Lynn Hershman Leeson’s ’70s alter ego Roberta Breitmore, while his ecosystems nod to Land art predecessors. Ripe, too, for analysis is Cheng’s philosophy on public art, which he has pursued for more than thirty years. In a Los Angeles Times op-ed in 2000, Cheng defended recent commissions by artists (including himself) in Los Angeles metro stations. He argued that public art could offset the blight caused by a proliferation of artificial, mass-marketed products. “LA . . . has the potential to reset the concept of our materialistic world—from one of more and more to one of less but better,” he wrote. It’s a statement that would surely resonate with LA’s art excavators, who have long argued that the particular character of the West Coast art community—which has historically been smaller and less commercially oriented than that of the East—has allowed for especially high-quality work.