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Coming full circle with Samurai! An Interview with Shawn Cheng

Born in Taiwan and raised on Long Island, artist Shawn Cheng studied painting & printmaking at Yale University. He now lives and works as a painter, cartoonist, and illustrator in New York City. His painting, The Scourge Vanquished, was created for the Worcester Art Museum’s Samurai! exhibition, on view through September 6, 2015. Opposite, the artist views the painting at the Samurai! opening party with his two daughters. Below, he explains his creative process and how the samurai has influenced his work.

access: What interested you about being a part of Samurai!?

SC: A lot of my work features Japanese imagery and iconography, so when Eric (Nakamura)* approached me last year about a samurai-themed show, we both agreed it’s “in my wheelhouse.” I’ve worked with Eric and Giant Robot for many years, so I knew it would be a cool show with a great lineup of artists.

access: You were born in Taiwan, but grew up in New York. Where did your interest in the samurai come from and how has it influenced your work as an artist?

SC: Spending my early childhood in Taiwan definitely primed me for my interest in samurai later on. Japanese culture has a big influence in Taiwan, so I was exposed to Godzilla and samurai and all that, but beyond that I think it’s the ambient cultural elements – like textile

patterns, kanji characters, street signs, folktales and legends – that all became part of my subconscious. So when I encountered Japanese or Japaneseinspired stuff later on in America, I felt drawn to it. It was familiar. When I was a kid, it was the Ninja Turtles, and later on, Blade of the Immortal. And then when I was studying art I learned about ukiyo-e and printmaking. In my own work, I try to elicit a visceral response from the viewer, so when I’m creating the work I take inspiration from the things that I have a visceral connection with. access: How did you approach creating The Scourge Vanquished, and what does it tell us about your feelings about the samurai?

SC: I approached this painting the same way I usually do. I had a cast of characters and a narrative in mind. In this case, it was the samurai Minamoto no Yorimitsu and his retainers battling the demon king Shuten-dōji. So with that as a starting point, I tried to create a visually interesting picture – for me that means putting in maximal detail. In a way, the big painting is a series of smaller paintings – each piece of clothing is a mini abstract composition, each face in the crowd is a mini portrait. In the end, if the piece is successful, it all works together. And of course it’s much easier to do complexity and detail when it’s a subject you’re passionate about and familiar with, so hopefully that comes across in this piece.

access: The Scourge Vanquished includes representations of some of the historical arms and armor objects that are also shown in the exhibition. How did these objects influence the piece?

SC: I do a lot of research for my drawings and paintings. Part of it is to be historically accurate. Part of it is, more often than not, the actual things that exist are weirder and more imaginative than what I could’ve come up with. Before I start on a piece I load my brain up with all these visual elements, then shuffle them up to get inspiration. Like, wow, here’s an articulated metal lobster – that would look cool on a helmet. Or, whoa, here’s an early firearm that’s more or less a small pistol-shaped canon – it would be funny to have a small demon try to handle it.

access: What was your reaction on opening night when you saw the exhibition for the first time?

SC: It was wonderful to be able to attend the opening. I had seen some of the stuff online but actually being there – it all made sense, seeing the new artwork alongside the old artifacts. You really got a sense that the visual tradition of the samurai is an ongoing, evolving thing. Like, seeing the suit of armor in person, you realize that when it was new it must’ve been as vibrant as the contemporary art around it. What we consider venerable tradition now was contemporary culture once upon a time.

* Eric Nakamura, founder of Giant Robot, is guest curator of Samurai! Photograph © Yuka Suzuki.

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