Renqian Yang and Her Porcelain Prose 

Zi Lin

Between the flashy conceptual-digital works of art in the field of fancy and the convenient mass-produced industrial products in the field of mundanity, we often overlook the value of handmade artifacts. The artifacts-are they art- or are they products? The obscurity of the answer often bemused people who approach in this direction, as the artifacts seem both can and cannot be correctly categorized into either category. Rather, the contemporary artifacts seem to be the residue of once more renowned Arts and Crafts movement in the late 19th century, initiated by big names such as Augustus Pugin and John Ruskin in its era. Disappointed by the excessive decoration on mass produced and cheap quality of materials demonstrated and celebrated in the Great Exhibition of 1851 in the Crystal Palace in London, some artists and craftsmen-and-women advocated the higher value of handmade-objects as a gesture to oppose identical products from an industrialized production line. Things have changed a lot since the late 19th century, the objects people can find in IKEA and many places today seems so subtle and elegant that one would reasonably doubt the advocation of Arts and Crafts movement- the higher value is no longer there at craftsmen and women’s hands but in the advanced machinery. Well, this doubt of mine vanished when I first encountered Renqian Yang’s porcelain.

It was like anything I had seen before. The first impression of objects like this would be a dead coral excavated from the bottom of the ocean. Or would it be a frozen bonfire? One thing I can be sure that if the word porcelain indicates something like a Chinese vase or a coffee mug or a Tasse, then the maker of this piece of porcelain has already gone very far. The object is definitely not made on a potter’s wheel like how normal vessels are, nor any similarity shared with carving sculptures which are a process of deduction. An object like this is not deduced from something else, as it lacks a sense of structural solidarity; the omission of which is not put it into any disadvantage, rather, a subtle dynamic fragility becomes its magic touch to the viewers who might surprisingly find sympathy with their own personal fragility. The way to achieve this sympathy is a very laborious process, as I was later told by the artist. It requires a quite unique material called paper clay which consists of paper and clay but both in their semi-liquid statutes. In this stage, the artist would blend the two materials into one and wedge them together, deciding how much the pieces can be bend into a certain degree, at the same time, being tenacious enough to adhere with other pieces. The whole process is a meticulous building up from the bottom to the top. “I have no idea what the work will look like before the last second of completion.” Renqian Yang said, and she told me that she continues this process of building up until reaching a point where the structure shows signs of being unable to sustain its own weight. Then she would stop and send the piece into a Kiln. The whole process is both skillful and emotional as if a certain force guides her hands.

This description of her working process might sound familiar to those who write and takes pleasure in writing. In fact, the two has a lot to share: they are both process orientated, unit fabricated, material building up, and somatosensory guided process. Both are involved heavily with intellect, hands, and experiences. Therefore, I would like to name Renqian Yang’s works in this method as a Porcelain Prose, and it would not be a far fetch from what they are. Similarly, with prose, the true quality of Renqian’s porcelain requires a mindful reading to tell, not only with eyes but also with hands. In some occasion, the artist would invite viewers to touch her works, because, as she said, it is the only way to really approach a porcelain work.

The surface of Renqian’s porcelain works is often without glaze, especially for her paper clay series, but that does not mean they are without color. In fact, the color in most of her non-glazed type is made by adding chemical material in the later liquidizing stage, when both paper and clay are not consolidated, before firing. In this way, the color is not merely on the surface but merged within the body. It gives a high saturation of the color when provides a sense of depth in the colored area. The surface of her non-glazed works is dry-skin-like. That is said, it reminds me of, when I touch it, human skin, or should I say old people’s skin-the one that dries a bit. This reminding from touching drastically different with the way they look, and they look twiggy, slight, and sensitive, in other words, ingenue-like. This discrepancy left me with a deep impression of Renqian’s work, while also elevated my understanding of the subject of porcelain.

Renqian Yang’s most recent series of works, which are the main body of works exhibited in Fou Gallery in January, are distinguishingly various with her previous endeavors, and yet, it is also a trajectorial development. The continuation comes from the insight she gains from her previous making of paper-clay and the exploration of the dynamic limitation of the structure. But this time, the plasticity of the porcelain plate is in the test. Instead of blending small paper-clay chips, which was what Renqian Yang had done in her previous works, the paper-clay is enlarged into a clay sheet, and they are turned by the artist to form incomplete rolls. Those twist porcelain rolls are structurally even more fragile than the small slates in her previous paper clay series, as more height a porcelain work has, the more difficult it is to make; meanwhile, they are dangerously beautiful in a way that, as their sizes are larger, the rhythm of the line formed by the edges in each role plays a more important part than the scattering line in her previous paper clay series. The rhythm in these lines that, I can only describe as if capturing the shape of flames in the surface of burning charcoals. They are, as I been told later by the artist, joint work partially done by the artist's hand, and partially done by the kiln’s “temperament”.

Speaking of the Kiln there is another part of the magic has not yet to be revealed- the wood firing. When some particular type of woods burned in a specially designed kiln, the mineral that trapped inside woods would release themselves to the heating chamber of the kiln, which leads to another level of unpredictability. As the Kiln has already been a magic place for ceramics artists- “nothing would be completely the same in its in-and-out of the kiln” refers to the artist, the released mineral inside heating chamber will initiate a series of chemical chain reaction, and ultimately lead to the unpredict coloring of the surface of the work. And that is how some of the artist's ceramics works to gain their colors. As a matter of fact, the coloring is an alternant process between the wood firing and the artists’ hand. The result is these wild coloring, brisk marking, glazed surfaces. The color works with the rhythm of the edges, producing an effect that the close viewers often found themselves to besotted with.

From clay which is mere dirt and water, a human being made their first series of crafts that drastically distinguished themselves from other animals on earth, among them, there were kiln-making and pottery-making. Inside the heating kiln, the clay work, touched and informed by human hands, gains its new quality, transforming into something else- a bowl, a vase, or a piece of art. The ones sent by Renqian Yang come out as the latter. At this very moment of writing, I have my new understanding of what Arts and Crafts movements are about. It is about the imperfection of human handcrafts and the inability of total control of the heat, the material, and the result, yet, from which, what we called art burgeons, and what is what an industrialized production line can never achieve.

Renqian Yang, Artificial Sprawl, 2018. Paper clay, fire to cone 6, electric kiln, 11 x 12 x 11 inches ©Renqian Yang, courtesy Fou Gallery

Renqian Yang, Bulge, 2019. Porcelain, fire to cone 6, electric kiln, 14.5 x 8 x 5.5 inches ©Renqian Yang, courtesy Fou Gallery.

Renqian Yang, 2013. Installation of porcelain, stoneware, fiber, found object, 10ft x 15ft x 10ft © Renqian Yang

Renqian Yang, Urban Sprawl 7, 2016. Stoneware, underglaze, acrylic, 9.5 x 7 x 6.5 inches © Renqian Yang, courtesy Fou Gallery.

Renqian Yang, Mixed Growth, 2018. Paper clay, fire to cone 10, wood firing, 9 x 8 x 8 inches ©Renqian Yang, courtesy Fou Gallery.