A Journey Through Antithesis  
On Renqian Yang’s Ceramic Works
Text/Liang Hai

Although the sprawling forms and dribbles of colors in Renqian Yang’s ceramic works sometimes evoke an impression of splashing water or flowing streams, there’s never any symbolic figure that can be designated to a specific motivation or inspiration in her creation. Renqian Yang focuses on a more abstract level of depicting and conveying various feelings shared by humans—“tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on” (Mark Rothko). She is interested in basic emotions and the concept of antithesis. The typical contrast in most of her works—the sense of freeness and fluidity expressed through the very hard and brittle material, ceramic—also stems from her subconscious addiction to the duality of things and phenomena. During her creation, she attempts to wander through opposite extremes of things and spark inexperienced scintillation by juxtaposing, combining or counterposing them. The representations of her works always appear to be a state that is flowing, sprawling, spreading and diffusing.

Yang’s latest series of works were invited to be exhibited at the Northern Kentucky University Art Museum in Rivers Connect: The Unstoppable Force of Contemporary Ceramic Art during the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts in early 2021. The work “Gezelligheid” has inherited her signature visual language from 2016–2020, but has extended it to an unprecedented exploration—the duality of entity and emptiness in topology, compared to her past works. It consists of clusters of soft-looking wrinkled ceramic pieces, with delicately-applied colors in multiple kinds. Viewing the whole, spaces enclosed by forms and interconnected voids appear naturally in this frozen porous flow. For Yang, colors and forms are instruments to approach the ultimate essence—emotions. All aspects in this work, both entities like physical existences and emptiness like hollow external and internal spaces, constitute a journey of the strolling mind. It is a period of experience that is perceived, visualized and materialized in its time and space, without a beginning or an end.

The changefulness of ideas and emotions in the human mind resembles the vicissitudes of rivers in nature. All kinds of thoughts emerge, converge, diverge, transform, and disappear, slowly but constantly remould the terrain of the mind, just like how rivers change natural landscapes. Renqian Yang’s ceramic works reflect a state of ever-changing randomness—even though whose drastic variations seem under some invisible rules—through her meticulous making process. Apparently, a ceramic work like hers is not deduced from any of its kin which are always shaped with a solid structure. The subtle dynamic and fragility of her work precisely challenges the general stereotype about the characteristics of ceramic, and thus arouses further thinking on strangeness in familiarity among the viewers with its dramatic contrast. The way to achieve this is extremely laborious and elaborate. Yang uses a unique material she carefully creates and scrutinizes called paper clay, which consists of paper and clay both in their liquid state. Yang would blend the two materials into one, wedge them together, and dry them on plaster. In her later series of works, she also mixed different colorants into paper clay to create an organic texture of flow of colors. Then, she carefully experiments on bending and deforming each piece into a complex curved surface and adheres it to other pieces. The whole process is a growing-up from a single point in space. Yang would stop building up the work when she feels the structure is reaching its limit of self-supporting. After that, she will send the work into a kiln and repeat firing it for two to five times, until she is satisfied with the glazed surface. She captures and follows the natural emergence and flow of emotions in the making process and lets them guide her creation until the last second. 

A precursor who experimented in ceramic to explore this medium’s potential and unanticipated future is Lucio Fontana (1899–1968), although he’s far more famed for his monochrome paintings with holes and slashes on the surface in his late period of career. Fontana first experienced ceramic as the medium to make art in 1930 right after his studies at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts in Milan, and began to make his earliest significant works in clay five years later. His ceramic works are always a series of vivid grotesques, nimbly poised at the intersection of figuration and abstraction. These works reflect influences from the past—prehistoric artifacts, baroque architectural ornament, terracotta sketches by Bernini—yet they also anticipate later developments in the medium. Fontana arrived at sophisticated forms without losing touch with the immediacy of clay. “I am a sculptor, not a ceramicist,” he had declared more than once in his writings. Ceramics were a continuous expressive outlet for him throughout his singular artistic journey to “conquer space.”

As a contemporary ceramic artist, Renqian Yang apparently treks further into this medium’s possibilities by targeting the contrasts of antithetical characteristics of phenomena. Her representation also shows signs of influences from abstract expressionism, standing as a reflection of her individual psyche tapping into universal inner sources. Browsing her works in a group, the spontaneity and improvisation in her thinking process become conspicuous through the two inclinations among her works: an emphasis on dynamic, energetic gesture, in contrast to a reflective, cerebral focus on more open fields of color. At this level, her ceramics naturally possess something deep and essential which might be a universal duality of art in history: they resonate with both the discipline’s ancient past, and its previously unforeseen future.