Shawn Cheng is part of Superunnatural, an exhibition at GR2. I've worked with Shawn for numerous years however, we only met once as part of the Worcester Art Museum exhibition, Samurai! which took place in 2015. Residing in New York, Shawn Cheng is known for his indie comic work often with deluxe silkscreen printed covers to his complicated works often depicting Japanese folk and mythical monsters, yokai. I interviewed Shawn Cheng via email and this short e-conversation was long overdue.
Giant Robot: Once and for all, can you explain your process? I’ve heard it from you a few times now, and in the end, I need to have it one more time.
Shawn Cheng: Yeah, so this is the technique I came up with to transfer my ink drawings to a panel to make a painting. I work out the composition pretty tightly on my ink drawings, and I find my drawing process – lots of erasing and "looking" for the right line – is the best way for me to get the image I want, so I wanted to find a way to transfer that image to the final surface without having to redraw it.
So what I do is, I start with a panel that I've painted completely black. Then, I transfer my drawing onto it via silkscreen – but, instead of ink, I use a liquid latex mixture. It's like I've done a drawing with rubber cement. Next, I apply the colors with a combination of brushes (for areas that I want to be more "painterly") and rollers with stencils (for areas that I want to be more even and flat), all on top of the rubber cement lines.
And, the final part of the process: I rub the surface with a rubber cement remover (it's an actual thing). The latex that I laid down earlier comes off and reveals the black that I started with – so my original drawing reappears on top of the painted colors. And that's the finished piece.
So, yeah, that's the secret. As far as I know, I "invented" this process – or maybe I'm just the only one dumb or stubborn enough to do it, since it's labor intensive and a bit of a roundabout way of getting a drawing on a panel. I have tried alternative methods, like blocking out the colors first and then drawing directly on the panel, but I wasn't as satisfied with the final result. The rubber cement process ends up with a pretty unique look that I quite like.
Ki for Kintaro
GR: This sounds like a tough way to go, but that explains the slight off registration areas. Is it ideally supposed to come out perfect? I see the off parts and the aesthetic itself. Yet the Japanese woodblock prints that you’re most likely influenced by Yoshitoshi are often spot on!
SC: The off-registration is definitely part of the aesthetic. Also the way the line work degrades slightly at each step of the process is important. I think it’s really cool how the mechanical processes of reproduction introduce bits of randomness and imperfection – like in woodblock prints or old newspaper comics – and that adds more depth and complexity in the final image.
Yeah, I love Yoshitoshi! His lines feel really contemporary and fresh to me. Definitely one of my big influences.
GR: Can you tell me why you depict yokai? I know you’re Chinese and married to a Japanese woman, but does that have much to do with your exposure to yokai?
SC: Well, yokai are just so wonderful and weird. I started doing my current series of yokai paintings thinking maybe I'd do an alphabet book with the Japanese hiragana letters, and I've still got a ways to go. I also wanted to make a bunch of smaller works while I refined my painting process. I do think the subject plays to some of my strengths – making up weird monsters and working with some preset parameters. And Japanese folklore gives me a lot of good material.
My upbringing and background probably did have something to do with it, but in a subconscious way. I spent the first part of my childhood in Taiwan (until I was 8), where Japanese culture was a big influence. All the comics and cartoons that made an impression on me as a kid were from Japan. Also, the scariest ghost stories were Japanese ghost stories. I remember having these weird, borderline frightening figurines that I later realized were from Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro. It wasn't until much later, when I was learning about woodblock prints as an art student, that I started researching yokai folklore. But yeah, a lot of it seemed familiar and there were moments of "Ah so that's what that was."
GR: Your depictions of yokai are therefore researched and depict a moment in that yokai’s folklore?
SC: I do a good deal of research and try to keep my interpretation true to the tradition. A lot of the yokai are described more as types and aren’t tied to a specific narrative, so I can extrapolate quite a bit (like depicting them in a modern setting) and still stay consistent with the literature.
For yokai that are only associated with specific stories, I’ll try to choose a moment or angle that hasn’t been represented yet.
Te for Tengu
GR: How far are you from the alphabet being complete?
SC: I’m about a quarter of the way there, I think? There are so many yokai I want to draw, so I decided I’d include modified versions of letters, which increased the number to over a hundred. I have this big chart with the letters and yokai names – it’s spectacularly nerdy.
GR: I met you via you sending me PARTYKA, can you talk about this project?
SC: Partyka is the art-slash-comics collective that I started with Matt Wiegle, Sean McCarthy, and Sara Edward-Corbett. We met at Yale mainly while working on the Comics section of The Yale Herald, and after graduation we all wound up in Brooklyn – this was in 2002. We were spending a lot of time together, so forming Partyka was a way to motivate each other and be productive. We modeled ourselves after other indie comics collectives like Fort Thunder and USS Catastrophe, where we would do our own things but pool our resources to go to conventions and stuff. A big part of it was our website, where we posted a new drawing every day. This was in the days before Tumblr or even WordPress, so I did all the coding by hand! We also had monthly Guest Artist galleries – we managed to get some amazing talents like Eleanor Davis and Jeff Lewis and Zak Smith and many more.
Shu for Shuten Doji
GR: Ft Thunder was amazing. That’s a high standard and frankly they weren’t that far away from you and active at that time, right? Did you ever meet them or visit the Fort? Have any favorite artists from the Fort? USS Catastrophe is awesome as well.
SC: Yeah, those were high standards for sure. I don’t mean to put ourselves on that level – those were our aspirations. The Fort had closed down just around that time so we never had the chance to visit. Out of those guys Mat Brinkman’s work was always an inspiration to me. Treated Heights still blows me away every time, and I look at it pretty regularly. All those guys’ work had a level of fearlessness that I really admired.
We were able to get to know some of the USS Catastrophe guys from conventions. Dan Zettwoch in particular was very gracious and kind, always had time to talk shop and trash talk about baseball (Cardinals vs Mets).
GR: What’s PARTYKA mean?
SC: Partyka? Ha, it's the name of a car dealership near New Haven – Partyka Chevrolet, I think? There was a big sign that said PARTYKA, and we would drive past it on the way to the Dairy Queen. We always got a kick out of it because it sounded like some kind of war cry and, more importantly, contained the word "party". (We listened to a lot of Andrew W.K. one summer – we were young, OK?) So we chose it as the name of the collective. Only later did we learn that it's actually a fairly common Polish surname – it means "chunk of bread" and was used to indicate a poor person who had nothing more than a chunk of bread, so it turned out to be somewhat appropriate!
(Just checked Google Maps. They changed the sign! Oh man I'm getting old.)
GR: I know you more as an artist rather than indie comics artist these days. Is there a longer term direction you’re working more towards?
SC: I’d like to do both long term. I think they are different incarnations of my artistic "vision" or whatever. Right now I'm doing more paintings and drawings but I'm still contributing comics to anthologies (Cartozia Tales, The Graphic Canon series). I haven't been doing self-published minicomics recently – I think it's time for me to work on something longer and more substantial. And do more paintings! I need a Hyperbolic Time Chamber.
GR: I’m still proud to tell people that Worcester Art Museum has a piece by you in their permanent collection that lives alongside the masters in art history.
Oh man, that still seems unreal to me! (Thanks again for including me in that show, btw!) I’ve been telling everyone I know. We’re gonna drive up there over spring break to see it in person.
GR: The day job is graphic design, right? Is that merely a bill paying mechanism? Or something you’re passionate about? (is this right? or did I forgot?!)
SC: It's definitely a Day Job – I mean, it's in a quote-unquote creative field but I don't look for artistic fulfillment from it, which I think is healthier when you're working in a corporate setting. I did get to design the Sesame Street website, though, years ago, which was awesome.
For more about Shawn Cheng, see his site at shawncheng.com
To see more of Shawn Cheng's art, see Superunnatural
To see Shawn Cheng's piece, The Scourge Vanquished, purchased by Worcester Art Museum. See this link.