“Absurdity, like any other genre has its own rules. But it comprises everything., which lies outside of common rules and boundaries”
Creator of Absurdology
By: David Carrillo
Michael Cheval is one of the greatest contemporary artists in the world, specializing in surrealistic paintings, drawings and portraits. He particularly enjoys creating works of the absurd, often portraying his complex characters as masked or controlled by the likes of a puppeteer. While he says that he does not relate with impressionists or surrealists, his work is often metaphorical and takes a sharp eye to decipher the often hidden allusion.
“Anyone of my paintings is a map of my journey into illusion where sometimes you can find errors and miscalculations, but these are also part of the game. Game with absurdity,” Cheval says. “In all my images I try to analyze and then convert to metaphor, everything that makes an impression on me.”
Cheval was born in 1966 and graduated from the Ashgabat School of Fine Art. In 1998 he became a member of the National Arts Club in New York, and in 2001 he became a member of the Society for Art of Imagination in London. Over the past five years he has participated in an astounding 22 group exhibitions and 12 one-man art shows.
In all of Cheval’s work he tries to achieve what he calls co-authorship. It is the relationship between the artist and the spectator and through it, new ideas and a higher level of understanding of the work is attained. Says Cheval: “The co-authorship and rivalry at the same time, between the artist and the spectator, and the need to understand each other, is my general aim. That is why my spectator has to be ready for this kind of game. He should have aspiration to understand the world I present, and thereby expend his horizons and his consciousness.”
Cheval’s work is internationally acclaimed and can often be seen in galleries in New York and abroad. His accolades include being a winner of the Exhibition in National Arts Club in 2000, being asked to participate in an Annual Exhibition of Society for Art of Imagination in 2002 and 2003, and publishing two full-colored art albums. The first, Lullabies, was published in 2004 and was 96 pages. The second, Nature of Absurdity, was published in 2007 and was 128 pages.
Currently the Gallery HB, which is located in the located at Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort & Spa, is the exclusive showcase for Cheval’s work on the west coast. They are thrilled and excited to showcase his work, and he is one of the first artists in the last five years to be accepted into their prestigious gallery, which helps catapult artists onto the international scene. Simply put, Cheval’s unique style has taken the world by storm.
The following is a question and answer session with Cheval, where he speaks about how he entered the world of art, his unique style, the creative process, and much, much more.
As a child, were you interested in art?
I was lucky to be born in a family where art was, probably, the main interest in life. Paintings, books and music surrounded me from childhood. For me, it was as natural as playing with toy soldiers or (what) participating in sports was for other children. This does not mean that I did not like regular games. But more than anything in the world I loved to draw, to leaf though albums of famous painters, or simply to fantasize looking at the clouds or the patterns on the curtains … there was always something to find in them. My parents were very happy about this since it was always easy to keep me occupied. All it took was to give me a paper and a pencil.
Where do you get your inspiration for your art?
Inspiration? This is difficult to explain. Imagine a regular radio. It accepts signals and you hear the music. Similarly, inspiration is a process of accepting certain signals, and, if your soul is properly tuned, you will hear the produced “music.” In reality, of course, this is not so simple. It is always necessary to feed your inspiration, to charge it with a certain energy that allows the proper tuning. I travel, meet with different people, read, go to the theater, (and) watch movies … I am never bored. Moreover, I am chronically short of time. What a pity that there are only 24 hours in a day.
Who were artists that inspired you when you began your career?
Of course, Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte. These fathers of surrealism gave me an incredible push. When I saw their works for the first time, I felt the whole world turn upside-down; it was a true discovery. I never suffered from lack of fantasy, but I could not imagine that it was possible to break all the rules like that and yet stay in agreement with them, creating your own world, full of mysteries, wisdom and incredible feelings. But I never rejected Leonardo, Rembrandt or Vermeer, with whom I grew up. For me the connection through time continued — Dali and Magritte were an honorable continuation of this process.
What do you try to explain through your art? Are there any general messages or themes you try to convey through your work?
In reality there is nothing new in my messages. My paintings tell about love and betrayal, mysteries of feelings and primitive perception, about relationships of a man and a woman, children and parents. Conflict can be found anywhere. Literature scholars say that there are no new themes after Shakespeare … Themes are very scarce, it is true. Like colors in a rainbow, like notes in music, but people still compose music and combine colors. Thus, I try looking at the old, familiar to all, common themes from different sides, always finding something new and interesting in them. I am my own Sphinx who poses riddles and my own King Oedipus, who provides answers.
How do you decide what to paint? Do you start with a sketch that develops into a painting? Do you see it finished before you start sketching or painting?
Everything starts from a simple idea. I write down all that comes to mind and then I need to envision it. Sometimes there are mere minutes between the emerging idea and a sketch and sometimes several months. Sketching is the most difficult part. Characters, costumes, lighting, composition, background … these are only general elements. Only when I start “seeing” it in three dimensions -- when I can mentally scroll through the composition as a movie -- only then I begin working with canvas and paints. Sometimes when everything happens very fast and I am able to see a finished painting in my mind, then my sketch resembles a schema of an electrical device. Some sort of creative process continuously takes place in my head. Even if I don’t have paints or pencils in my hands.
How do the themes and conflicts from your work translate into your everyday life? Is it hard to separate the two?
Yes, I often hear this question. People look at my works and think that I am probably a strange person, who constantly lives in the world of his fantasies. My wife was also asked if it is difficult to live with a man, who paints like this. I believe that I am a normal, common person. I do not like telling about my fantasies until they appear on the canvas. I am very superstitious in this regard. But during the process of creation, especially when I work on my sketches, I change. I become absorbed in myself and it is difficult to draw me out of this condition. My family already knows this and tries not to distract me during this period.
Did you start your art as a concept that continues to develop? Or does your body of work change based on specific periods?
It depends. In general, of course, I follow the idea that inspired the painting’s creation. But it sometimes happens that during the process I become disappointed in the concept and it no longer interests me. In this case, the canvas can be abandoned or colored over. Yet sometimes, the idea transforms during the work process and at the end emerges something new and unexpected. This is the art’s very nature. The final result is never known.
What do you see in your future as an artist? Are there any special projects you would like to work on?
They say that appetite comes in the course of eating. Presently, I like what I am doing — painting, graphics and illustration. I would want to try myself in sculpture, go back to theater costumes and decorations, or even try my skills in film. Why not? Fantasy and non-standard way of thinking will be useful anywhere. There are many wonderful producers, close to me in spirit of their work, such as Tarsem Singh and Peter Greenaway.
Do you spend most of your time in New York? How do you think your surroundings influence your work?
Yes, most of the time I spend is in New York. I love this city; love its variety, its rhythm. It resembles the music that I like — rhythmical, melodious, but tough. I don’t like the crowds, the scurry, but observing this movement is truly enjoying. The city’s rhythm sets my inner rhythm; I obey it. Visiting Miami or Los Angeles, I cannot find my place, as if something is missing. And, of course, the very realization that I can visit New York’s museums and theaters means a lot too. I try not to miss important cultural events.
Do you put yourself in any of your paintings? Why or why not?
Yes, quite often! Sometimes I pose for myself in front of the mirror. Who can be a more diligent model than an artist himself? But sometimes I intentionally include myself in a composition without trying to hide it. It is like narration from the first person in literature. I don’t even see much difference between a writer and an artist, working in a genre like mine. The only difference is that the writer uses words while the artist employs visual images.
Many of your works contain masked characters or people being controlled by puppeteers. Can you describe your reasoning for doing this and what message you are trying to convey?
This is not that simple. Every work has its unique course of events. This course determines the choice of costumes, masks and characters. Masks are a universal method for showing an archetype. By placing one or the other mask in a composition, I immediately define the character, like in Greek theater. In general there are many theatrical elements in my works, even in the construction of composition. Theater has many facets, just like our life. This is where the theme of puppets and puppeteers comes from … Haven’t you ever felt that someone controls everything in life?
You have mentioned your desire to reach a “co-authorship” with people viewing you art. Can you elaborate on this?
There must be a backward connection. Without it any art will languish; turn to a “thing in itself”. That is why the artist’s task is to build a bridge between his fantasy and the audience. When it is built and the viewer is engaged, then the artist was able to touch certain strings in the viewer’s soul, in his intellectual baggage. And if the viewer would like to argue with the artist or come up with his own fantasy based on the painting, then the artist’s goal is 100% achieved. Let the audience argue, even scold, but not remain indifferent. In the end, everyone has one’s own subjective view of the world, one’s own unique philosophy.
The titles of your paintings often give clues to the message of the work. Can you describe the process of naming a painting?
The process of naming a painting is very important. I really try to give an idea, a hint to the meaning of my work, to create an intrigue, captivate the viewer and draw him into the world of my fantasy. Sometimes I come up with a title and create a painting as an illustration for it. Sometimes the title emerges in the process of working on my canvas. It also happens that the painting is finished, even varnished, but the title wouldn’t come. Then I am tormented by art — only now an art of literature. But this rarely happens. This is where my poetical experience comes in handy.
Absurdity is a common theme in your work. Can you explain what your idea of the absurd is and how it is translated into your paintings?
In my definition, “absurdity” is an inverted side of reality, a reverse side of logic. It does not emerge from the dreams of surrealists or the work of subconscious. It is a game of imagination, where all ties are carefully chosen and literary plot is constructed. But there is also the desire to put everything upside-down. Then common situations will sparkle with new colors, angles will become rounder, and circumferences will sharpen. We live in absurdity anyway. If you take a careful look, there is little logic in our surroundings. Then it follows that I am just a regular realist painting life as it is … what an amusing paradox!