Multidisciplinary artist explores Asian and American traditions in works both personal and universal
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Multidisciplinary artist explores Asian and American traditions in works both personal and universal
Kelly Wang (Wang Jiayi王佳怡) (born 1992, New York, NY; active New York), Recluse Studio No. 3, February 23, 2018. Ink, pigment, resin, and paper on plexiglass; 27.9 × 43.2 cm, 32.4 × 47.5 × 3.2 cm (frame). Museum purchase, gift of the P.Y. and Kinmay W. Tang Center for East Asian Art (2018-108).

PRINCETON, NJ.- New York-based artist Kelly Wang (born 1992) combines ancient and contemporary influences to create multimedia works resonant with elements of cultural identity and personal grief. She creates what she terms landscapes of the heart — heartscapes — that revolve around places, people or events with which she has a deep affinity. Between Heartlands / Kelly Wang features 32 works of art from the last six years, including recent acquisitions from the Princeton University Art Museum’s own collections, that challenge the way we think about heritage and how we perceive the world around us. Walking a tightrope between past and future, East and West, Wang pushes the boundaries of calligraphy, painting and sculpture in new ways while confronting prejudice, life and death.

Between Heartlands / Kelly Wang is curated by Cary Y. Liu, the Nancy and Peter Lee curator of Asian art at the Princeton University Art Museum. The exhibition is on view at the Museum’s contemporary gallery Art@Bainbridge in downtown Princeton from Jan. 15 through Feb. 27, 2022.

“Installed in historic Bainbridge House, Kelly Wang’s innovative work bridging eras, cultures and techniques is beautifully crafted in ways that invite each of us to consider memory, the past, the need for refuge and ultimately to awaken a sense of our shared humanity,” said James Steward, Nancy A. Nasher–David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, director.

The exhibition opens with a group of cosmetic compacts, titled Thank You for Reminding Me of My Rich Cultural Past (2021), that documents slurs from Wang’s school days through to the present, when COVID-19 sparked a rise in anti-Asian hatred. Women use mirrored compacts to look at themselves, yet Wang’s intervention of burnt-paper words covering the mirrors makes visible what certain others may see, think and hate.

Subsequent works play on Chinese calligraphy and landscape painting traditions but present them in an unfamiliar manner. In Calligraphic Abstraction (2020), each Chinese character, an empty form burned into the paper using incense, is readable, but the assembled text is illegible and may be best understood by the title Calligraphic Abstraction. Calligraphy is also embedded in Wang’s landscapes, including Recluse Studio (2018), in which she responds to the long tradition of blue-green landscape painting in China by experimenting with ink brushed on paper that is then submerged under layers of resin infused with pigments that she manipulates by blow torch. The resin transmutes into a durable substance, creating a near-transparent depth in which the pigments seem to flow.

The sense of safety and belonging that Wang achieved in her work was shattered in the spring of 2020 with the outbreak of COVID-19 that led to her father’s death. In her series Microcosms of Mourning (2021), the artist twists small strips of newspaper that she saved while her father was hospitalized and attaches them to canvas. With the twisted paper, Wang creates images of Chinese scholar’s rocks (microcosms of immortal realms), still-life depictions of utilitarian wires reminiscent of cursive-script calligraphy and a topographical map titled New York City (Microcosm 6) (2021) — the location of her grief and loss. After her father’s death, Wang was sent alone to a side door outside the hospital and confronted with rows of plastic garbage bags containing patients’ personal belongings. Picking Up the Trash Bag of Your Belongings (2021), with its raw emotion, cries with the anguish she felt at that moment.

Framing these moments of mourning, the exhibition begins and ends with a painting of the Buddhist deity Guanyin (2015), the Bodhisattva of Compassion. One of Wang’s favorite works and a gift to her mother, this depiction of Guanyin represents a place of infinite grace between heartlands.

“Kelly Wang’s deeply felt work examines the tensions inherent in being caught between heartlands, with a sense of allegiance to two or more identities and cultures, and the complexities that result,” said Liu.

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