Now on View: Vivian Wang

Jenna Gilley, Associate Curator of Exhibitions

I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to break out the fall fashions. Coats, hats, and scarves that were stowed since last winter are reemerging in all their cozy splendor. This exciting thought reminded me of a beautiful work by Vivian Wang, currently on display in our Glass Wing gallery dedicated to emerging glass masters. Vivian Wang is an American sculptor of Chinese descent who is inspired by the art of ancient China and Japan. With Asian features and formal poses, her figures are always elaborately clothed in garments replete with Asian patterns and motifs. The “textile-like” surfaces of her work are purposely distressed or antiqued. Wang uses glass components for the hands, feet, and heads of her figures, which imbues them with an intangible quality. Together, these elements give the sculptures a haunting look, mirroring the paintings and sculptures of ancient China and Japan. 

A glass sculpture of a young girl in an embellished yellow and red robe, with matching hat, sits holding a small dog in her lap.
Vivian Wang, American, b. China, 1945. Sister in Yellow. Cast glass, stoneware, and gemstones a steel base, 2018. Gift of the Artist, 2019.94.a.&b. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Sister in Yellow is a seated female figure adorned in a resplendent robe, kerchief, and hat encrusted with crystals. A small dog sits on her lap. In yellow and red, she is most definitely dressed in her best for the season. With her sculptures’ excellent fashion sense, it comes as no surprise that Wang began creating sculptures after a career as a fashion designer, working for Jones, New York. A very large and corporate company, “not very creative”, in Wang’s words, she turned to ceramics, casting plates and bowls and cups, painting intricate Chinese scenes and people on them to satisfy her creativity. 

It was a fateful encounter around the turn of the new millennium that would push Wang’s life in a new direction. At Garth Clark’s Gallery on West 57th Street in New York City, Wang saw an exhibition of Japanese ceramicist Akio Takimori’s work. She recalls, “The exhibition consisted of a dozen ceramic figures, about two or three feet in height, of people he remembered from the Japanese village he had lived in as a child. I had never seen anything like them. My embrace of Akio’s work made me want to do what he did, to become a sculptor, to create my own figurative pieces.”  Soon after, in 2007, Wang and her family moved to West Palm Beach, FL for “space and sunshine”, and Wang began making ceramic figures of immigrant American children, called Ragamuffins. These early figures, which she continues exploring in her City Kid series, were inspired by her own experience being a first generation American (she was born in Shanghai, China and then grew up in the States). Their clothing is based off trends popular at the time and speaks to her desire to own and look like the other children around her. These early figures had ceramic bodies, hands, and feet, with glass faces or sometimes whole heads. As her skill working with glass improved, Wang would slowly incorporate more glass elements into the design. By 2009, Wang had produced enough work to have her first exhibition at Stewart Fine Art Gallery in Boca Raton, Florida. Her sculpture sold well there, and three years later she was invited to join Habatat Galleries, where our work was gifted from by the artist. 

Artist Vivian Wang poses with some of her glass children sculptures.
Vivian Wang with some of her children. Photo courtesy of Habatat Gallery.

Sister in Yellow comes from Wang’s later series which explores Chinese and Japanese courtiers and children. Wang’s materials contribute to this juxtaposition of exploring old and new ties in Asian culture. “In ancient times, figurative sculpture was made in ceramics, stone and wood, and I have followed that tradition by using clay for my bodies. In old China, glass was used only for religious artifacts and decorative ornaments; its purpose to mimic jade. In contrast, I employ glass as glass to create my heads, hands and feet, a contemporary use of materials.” After a sketch, glass granules or “frit”, which the artist uses to create her sculptures, is poured into molds created from hand-sculpted clay to make the heads, hands, and feet of her figures. These parts cool in a kiln for several weeks before they are opened, cleaned, and “coldworked” by washing and sanding to reveal crisp, milky features. After each casting is made, the molds are destroyed so each figure’s features are unique.  

A close-up of "Sister in yellow" showing the rougher texture of her hair and smooth face.
Close up view of Sister in Yellow. Vivian Wang, American, b. China, 1945. Sister in Yellow. Cast glass, stoneware, and gemstones a steel base, 2018. Gift of the Artist, 2019.94.a.&b. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

The body and clothing of Sister in Yellow is created from clay, which Wang also sculpts. The garment is then glazed and fired. As a previous fashion designer, Wang is inspired by historical textile design and existing garments from East Asia, particularly the Tang and Song dynasties of China and the Heian and Edo Periods in Japan. Each of her figures are based off a real person living during one of these periods, and their garb is specific to their dynasty and rank. For example, in Sister in Yellow, the woman wears a hanfu robe inspired by the imperial clothes of the Song dynasty. Bright yellow was a color exclusively worn by the highest of classes, and her rank is emphasized even more with the addition of semi-precious gems and crystals in the shapes of stars and flowers. Once both the glass and ceramic elements of the sculpture are made, the parts are epoxied together to create the final sculpture.  

Wang’s youthful forms, with chubby hands and round faces, are elevated by their expensive and detailed garb. This contrast celebrates the importance and purity of children, particularly those from immigrant families who feel lesser or out of place from their peers. Several of Wang’s “children”, however, grew up to be darker characters, inspired by ruthless figures in Chinese history, including Genghis Khan. Their portrayal as sweet souls, who wear the opulent court attire of their adult counterparts, is a comment on their beautiful innocence, but also perhaps a note on the unfair pageantry and pressure of the Asian court, both to court children and those born of a lesser rank.  

To see dozens more glass sculptures, we encourage you to visit our Glass Wing, a permanent installation of three galleries of glass from the 1950s to today.   

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