W Magazine: Julia Chiang and the Impossibility of What We Try to Contain

Katy Donoghue, White Wall Art , February 9, 2023

Julia Chiang’s solo exhibition “Salt on Our Skin” at Nicola Vassell, on view now in New York through February 25, 2023, is awash in color. Over three rooms—complimented by an oceanic blue floor—new paintings and ceramics capture layered forms colliding, deflating, overflowing, emptying, exhaling, releasing, overlapping, and intertwining. Waves of teardrop patterns sweep over wisps of dotted constellations. A family of vessels in clay crowd together on a platform, their hunched, lumped, bloated, and bent figures glittering in complicated glazes of greens, purples, blues, and browns.  

In a recent conversation with WhitewallChiang shared that with this new work, she wanted to connect her painting and clay practice, hoping to feel as loose and experimental in her painting as she does when working in clay.


That greater freedom in her paintings is palpable. Their layers and textures made us want to get in close, see how they came together, move around them to see the drips on the side that revealed Chiang’s pourings and physical manipulations in the studio. And those drips are comprised of colors that wake up the senses, a choice she told us was inspired by the natural brightness found when we simply observe what’s around and within us.


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Installation view of Julia Chiang's "Salt On Our Skin" at Nicola Vassell, courtesy of the artist and Nicola Vassell, New York.

The artist shared more about our futile attempts of holding it all together, and the beauty that can come from spilling the beans.


WHITEWALL: What was the starting for “Salt on Our Skin”?


JULIA CHIANG: I've been working on what's in the show for about a year and a half, but I feel like it's a lot of pent-up everything from the past few years—the world at large, parenting and working during the pandemic, so much time at the same time as not having a moment!


WW: Whew, tell me about it! I feel that.

Looking at the works, I was struck by a vibrancy of color. Were there particular colors or materials you were drawn to with these new paintings?


JC: I really wanted to try to connect how I work with clay and paintings a bit. I have spent more time with clay, and I can be more loose with it, experimenting with the material and not put as much pressure on certain outcomes. I wanted to try to loosen up my ways with paint, to pour and layer the way I have with glaze, play with translucency with the paints to connect with how glaze can reveal what's below. I was thinking of the glaze and paint as skin layers and what they can hide or reveal.

And with that, use colors that for me connect to our bodies and nature even in the most artificial-seeming brights. I am constantly amazed by the natural colors around us and within us! Having had two kids and looking at many medical scans and thinking how strange these neons are used to show blood, sound, and movement within us, and then you look at kingfisher bird feathers, and wow, colors!


WW: I feel like I’m also seeing a collision, or wave of forms I’ve not seen before in your work. More explicitly like bodies colliding. Or is that just me?


JC: Haha, no! I definitely have felt like we are constantly pushing, flooding, and crashing within ourselves, and also in our minds. And then externally, well we are just a tiny thing in this massive world full of forces coming from every which way. I imagine our bodies smushed squeezing into the train, dancing on a crowded floor, huddled in hiding. I think of the sweat, the tears, the pressures on everyone's skin, and what it looks like inside us. I imagine the blood flow slowing and speeding up, how things can move out of the way and sometimes can't, and how it all might feel.


WW: These paintings feel so layered. How did you want to play between form, color, and repetitive patterns?


JC: I didn't differentiate when making them. I chose colors that I thought could live together, that could merge and leak into each other. Then I saw what happened in the first pours and those forms guided me a bit as to what the next move would be. And when I pour I also move the panels so I direct the flow and also have to compromise with what the paint wants to do, too. Certain forms or negative spaces make me want to add or leave it be. It's a lot of, what does this area exude if it's more naked? And what if it is more marked?


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Installation view of Julia Chiang's "Salt On Our Skin" at Nicola Vassell, courtesy of the artist and Nicola Vassell, New York.

WW: Can you tell me about making the ceramic works? The glaze is so rich and full of depth!


JC: I haven't used glaze in this way in a long time. I love working with ceramics and I knew I wanted to make a family of forms in relation to the paintings. There is this very fun glaze called “crystal glaze.” When you're a kid and get introduced to it, it's mind-blowing. It's a glaze with these tiny bits of glass mixed in and you can control where to place them, or you can cover your entire object in them. When you fire the clay, these bits burst, creating spots or sometimes oozy drips.


As a kid, it's so exciting but over time you see crystal glaze and it feels very straight from the bottle and it has less of a wow factor. I wanted to see what would happen if I layered glazes and mixed crystals. There was a lot of chance and in a different light, you can see varied colors. I made the ceramics imagining them as objects that could inhabit the paintings or be squeezed out from them!


WW: And the choice of the blue floor, is so brilliant! How did you decide on that?


JC: I use blues a lot in my paintings and see it as a connecting color through all I make. My younger daughter often asks me why my veins are so blue. Why she can see blue on my arms, and I laugh thinking she must imagine my insides as a big blue sea. So partially inspired by her, I imagine us wading, swimming, floating together through the space.


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Installation view of Julia Chiang's "Salt On Our Skin" at Nicola Vassell, courtesy of the artist and Nicola Vassell, New York.

WW: For the show, you wrote about this idea of the tiny bits that make up our bodies—what we contain and what we cannot. There’s a vibrancy and a fragility you can feel in this work. It makes me think of how hard we try to contain, too. 


JC: I think that's very much a thing. The impossibility of what we attempt to contain. The efforts to keep it together and within and what happens when we can't, when it bursts, floods, is revealed! When my older daughter was younger and was exhausted and unraveling, I said, don't spill your beans. I was using the saying wrong as I often do, but I really could imagine all her bits in chaos falling out. And then I thought, that's all of us, just trying to hold on to each and every bean! And maybe about to reveal a secret too, ha!

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