While Tracie Cheng’s paintings lack human subjects, the sculptures of her husband, Eóin Burke, provide them. And while Burke’s sculptures often lack color or motion, Cheng’s paintings surround them with the stuff.

Since they married two years ago, Burke and Cheng have seldom had an exhibition where the other’s work wasn’t also in the room. Burke’s highly realistic figures are often stoic, with strong poker faces. But when Cheng’s ethereal creations serve as a backdrop, they can be viewed as a window into the mental or spiritual lives of the statues.

This symbiotic artistry wasn’t planned. While Burke and Cheng live under the same roof and work in adjacent studios, they don’t formally collaborate. No painting is wedded to any one statue. And while they constantly discuss and critique each other’s art, the two arrived at their respective artistic styles completely independently.

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Burke and Cheng came to New Haven that way, too. Burke arrived in 2008 from Philadelphia’s University of the Arts to pursue an MFA in sculpture at the Yale School of Art. Cheng arrived in 2010 to work at Pickard Chilton, a local architecture firm, and began doing art on the side. They met one another as parishioners at the Elm City Vineyard Church, married there in 2013 and a month later had what was technically their first exhibit together: the “alternative space” weekend of City-Wide Open Studios, when they found themselves assigned to the same room. To their surprise, attendees came up to them commenting on how well their pieces worked in conversation with each other.

Since then, the couple has continued to show their work in tandem. They’ve also continued attending ECV. And while neither of them see their art as expressly spiritual, the signs are there.

Once focused more on the human figure for its own sake, Burke has now begun a series of sacred statues with a twist: they depict parishioners, not deities. The first of these, titled Josh in Prayer, won Burke an award from the International Forum on Religion, Art & Architecture. A life-sized representation of Josh Williams, Burke’s former housemate at Yale and ECV’s current pastor, the figure wears a shaven head and what looks like a monk’s robe, sitting in a way that resembles the ancient Indian lotus pose. But on closer inspection, the robes are a contemporary hoodie and jeans, the lotus is a common cross-legged position and the subject isn’t a Buddhist but a westerner praying to a Christian god.

Burke is now working on the next piece in the series, which will be another life-sized rendering of a friend: Alysia Harris, a poet and fellow member of ECV, who expresses her spirituality in part through dance. Harris’s sculpted head already sits in Burke’s studio, and while the expression on her face is one of peaceful calm, the model of the body, sitting nearby, hints at the spirited dancer to come.

Like her husband, Cheng feels her art isn’t explicitly spiritual, but her abstractions do have a pleasing, ethereal quality to them, and some of the works’ titles—like Where You Go, I Will Go—are inspired by biblical passages. Cheng’s familiarity with architecture and topography—three-dimensional representation—is fundamental to her artwork. As an architect, organic forms—difficult to actualize as engineered structures—were scarce. As an artist, Cheng became free to play with the curves, ruffles and ridges of the natural world.

Charged with imagination, her abstractions variously resemble floating mountainscapes, smoke rising from a stick of incense, scarves snatched up by the wind, a bucket of water thrown into the air or columns of muscle laced with shiny sinew. Cheng suspects her paintings appeal to viewers because they evoke an instinctive affinity to the forms we often find in nature. She says she often hears from others that they find her works inexplicably pleasant to look at. “That’s what I want for my paintings,” Cheng says. “I want them to be beautiful and I want them to be significant… and just a good presence.”

The couple’s latest exhibition, Love. Life. Art., is on display in co-working space The Grove until this Friday, March 18th, when it’ll get a closing reception from 4 to 8 p.m. The vertical surfaces are Cheng’s, while the horizontals are Burke’s, while the two of them, together, are putting a new spin on the term “co-working.”

Eóin Burke and Tracie Cheng
Studio: visits by appointment
Exhibition: The Grove – 760 Chapel St, New Haven (map) | Mon-Fri 8:30am-5:30pm
Eóin Burke: (610) 858-1093 |
Tracie Cheng: (361) 655-7388 |

Written by Daniel Shkolnik. Photos 1 and 7 by Daniel Shkolnik. Photos 2 through 6 by Dan Mims.

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