Holding Place: Yewen Dong in the Studio

June 15, 2018 by

Through her work, Studio Workspace Resident Yewen Dong combines the conceptual with the observational. Placing the material at the forefront, featuring components of color, shape, and texture, she asks us to consider the relationship between these things.

Yewen is mixing clay into pulp. In the paper studio, vats are filled with slurry the color or red mud, forest green and creamy white. Her work takes shape organically, not typically beginning with a specific project in mind she responds to her environment, it’s about the space, me, and what I’m thinking at the time” she says, “I like experimenting, it opens doors.”

She experiments by putting materials together, finding interesting shapes and patterns, noticing how objects interact, and reflecting on this in the studio. Inspired by taking walks and observing “the uneven ground, puddles on the sidewalk”, the interplay of elements captures her attention and she recreates that relationship in her work.

Using paper as a structure to hold a layer of clay, repetitive marks pattern themselves across the surface. “The first things I notice are color and texture” she explains, “these are inspired by the texture of old walls and peeling paint.”  Using her hands and fingers to make gestural and semi-uniform marks, the absence of imagery highlights the material itself, showing us their unrefined but elemental qualities that are, as she puts it, “the touch of the material.”

Yewen recently began incorporating relief casting into her process. Pushing deep into the clay, rough edges emerge and smooth crevasses remain, “clay and paper hold the memory of a space, of how much you manipulate it” she says. The clay is pressed into plaster to create the mould which is then filled with a mixture of abaca, flax, and cotton pulp. When the paper is removed it holds the shape of the mould. This brings a different effect to her work, using the paper to reflect the marks of clay while highlighting its own material features.

The size of her work varies from large to small, and in some cases is composed of both. But small is relative since her sheets measure 22”x20” and her large work will take up the better part of a gallery wall. A few considerations (and constraints) help determine the scale. She explains “I started making larger work because I wanted to see how the body would relate.” She considers how the viewer will spend time with the work: large pieces create distance between the viewer and the piece, whereas smaller work shrinks that gap, inviting one to come closer. Perhaps most determining is the size limit of what can fit in a kiln. In the past, Yewen worked around this limitation by making smaller pieces which were hung close together creating the larger frame. Now, primarily working with paper as the base medium, she has more freedom to work big.

Yewen considers Time through out her process, “I think the material has its own time and I have mine” she explains, “I have to adjust my pace to the material to be friends with it.” Understanding the materials time allows her to manipulate in the right moment to capture the desired effect. She speaks tenderly about clay in its bone dry state, when you can “feel the sunlight on the material and it feels like it’s breathing.” This is the balancing act, trying to transform these mediums while retaining the rawness, fragility, and granularity inherently present.

Yewen Dong was born and grew up in Shenzhen, a coastal city in China. She received her BA in Art and Design from the China Central Academy of Fine Arts in 2013, continuing her education at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC); she received her MFA in Ceramics in 2017. Her practice incorporates drawing, sculpture, ceramics, papermaking, and video. She has presented her work at the American Museum of Ceramic Art, CA; Society for Contemporary Craft, PA; Muskegon Museum of Art, MI; and Mana Contemporary Chicago, IL.  Her work is part of The Joan Flasch Artists’ Book Collection at SAIC. See more of Yewen’s work on her website.
Marisa Malone is an artist and writer based in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has been published in Selfish Magazine and BlazeVox Journal   and she has self-published two chapbooks of poetry.