7 Asian American Artists Using Ceramics to Break New Ground

Harley Wong
May 17, 2022 6:39PM

In Anne Anlin Cheng’s 2018 book Ornamentalism, in which the scholar lays out a feminist framework for conceiving of Asiatic womanhood, she also descibes the phenomenon in which a nation’s exports became synonymous with its people. “The fates of Chinese female bodies and Chinese porcelain ran parallel to each other,” Cheng wrote. “As Euro-American acquisitiveness began to run in excess of what it could offer China in return, the early romance with china and China began to deteriorate…China’s meaning in the American popular imagination changed, with Chinese porcelain itself coming to connote tacky crockery.”

Porcelain has held an immense presence in the Western imagination and relevance in Chinese artistic production. Its denigration can be linked to the devaluation of Chinese labor and people. It’s a material that has a rich tradition and layered colonial history; this can also be extended to ceramics at large and its connection to East Asia.

Here, we focus on seven East Asian American artists and how they approach a medium loaded with inescapable connotations related to East Asia and Asianness. Whether self-taught or working as professors, they find varying ways through ceramics to relate to, subvert, or toy with expectations.

Amia Yokoyama

B. Illinois. Lives and works in Los Angeles.

Amia Yokoyama, In the soft darkness, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Sebastian Gladstone.


Slick glaze seems to congeal into thick droplets that slide down Amia Yokoyama’s smooth porcelain figures and pool at the base. In varying opacities of baby blue, the nude sculptures recall water and fluidity. Inspired by anime, Yokoyama’s female forms have accentuated features that defy gravity and human anatomy. Whether they’re lying down or positioned on all fours, they have perky, spherical breasts without need of support, narrow waists, flat stomachs, round butts, thick thighs, and diminutive calves.

Yokoyama’s figures are not necessarily a critique of anime’s hypersexualized depictions or the West’s enthusiastic consumption of such portrayals, but an exploration of alternative modes of Asiatic personhood existing on the fringes of mainstream culture. “Asiatic femininity is the hinge on which my work opens into a deeper, more complex phantasmagorical understanding of myself and my dense ever-changing relation to the world,” Yokoyama said. “They embody borderless beings, an amalgamation of bodies, fluid, and overflowing with desire and excess; the portion of their bodies that does not form the shape of a woman literally collecting at their feet; they seduce by promising ecstasy and death.”

Amia Yokoyama, Of all the world passing through, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Sebastian Gladstone.

Amia Yokoyama, Pleasure Wants the Seam, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Sebastian Gladstone.

Working with the imagery of one of the most popular forms of entertainment exported from East Asia, Yokoyama further embraces her work’s Asiatic ties through her choice of material—porcelain. “It carries with it an origin of desire, disgust, and diminishment, the sought-after pleasure technology of the ‘other’ non-phallic, non-European body. Something to be conquered, distributed, stolen, commodified,” Yokoyama explained. “From the origin of the word ‘porcelain’ to its historical and political use, it’s a material whose exoticism evoked desire in the form of domination and colonial pursuits between Europe and East Asia.”

Porcelain becomes the flesh of Yokoyama’s female figures. The phrases “porcelain doll” and “porcelain skin,” which have been used to describe white femininity, are now embodied by Yokoyama’s sculptures. Returning to Ornamentalism, Cheng asks, “How do we begin to think about racialized bodies that remain insistently synthetic and artificial? What about bodies not undone by objectness but enduring as objects?” Despite their monochromatic surfaces, Yokoyama’s works beg the same questions through, as the artist described, “clay bodies, clay avatars, fetishized bodies, bodies suspended between human and non-human.”

Cathy Lu

B. 1984, Miami. Lives and works in Richmond, California.

Cathy Lu, American Dream Pillow, Green Beauty Mask, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco.


“It feels endless,” Cathy Lu said, describing her relationship with ceramics. “Every time I work with clay, it’s always changing or I experience something different.…It connects across cultures.” Lu is currently featured in four exhibitions across the Bay Area and was one of five artists awarded SFMOMA’s 2022 SECA Art Award, which will see her exhibit at the San Francisco institution this December, accompanied by a publication.

In her current solo exhibition “Interior Garden” at the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco, ceramics intermingle with water pumps, bricks, and cinder blocks in large-scale installations. On view through December 17th, the show references the landscape of traditional Chinese gardens to illustrate the discrepancies between the unattainable promise of the American Dream and the dystopian lived realities of Chinese Americans.

Cathy Lu, installation view of Peripheral Visions, 2022, in “Interior Garden” at the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco, 2022. Photo by Aaron Stark. Courtesy of the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco.

Though “Interior Garden” readily engages with Chinese history and mythology, Lu explained that these explorations did not come naturally in her early career. “In the United States, there is an almost fetishistic reverence for traditional East Asian ceramics, especially porcelain,” Lu explained. “In the beginning, it made me hesitant to explore East Asian ceramics or culture.” After earning an MFA in sculpture and ceramics from SFAI in 2010, she was able to filter out those external influences and began addressing traditional Chinese art objects and symbols on her own terms.

Perhaps the most striking installation of “Interior Garden” is Peripheral Visions (2022), which features pairs of large ceramic eyes belonging to East Asian American women, including artists Ruth Asawa and Maya Lin; the Yellow Power Ranger; and Lu herself. Tears dyed yellow with onion skins cry out from their eyes and flow into a variety of vessels manufactured in China, from ornate porcelain vases to nondescript buckets propped up by stacks of colorful plastic stools. Some objects were sourced from Lu’s home, but most, if not all, look like they can be found in Chinatown shops.

“In the United States, there is an almost fetishistic reverence for traditional East Asian ceramics…and yet, the people of that culture are routinely dismissed or ignored.”

“I find a lot of inspiration from Chinatown in San Francisco. It reminds me of my family, my heritage, and there is a lot of nostalgia for me,” the Bay Area–based artist said. “But it’s also a symbol of resilience. Chinatowns exist because Chinese residents were prohibited from living elsewhere due to racism.”

Cathy Lu, installation view of Red-White-Blue, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

The influence of the Chinese community’s perseverance through times of hardship can also be seen in her work Red-White-Blue (2019), which was recently featured in the group exhibition “On the Edge: CCA Clay” at Pence Gallery in Davis, California. Lu stitched together discarded bags commonly seen throughout China and Chinatowns to form an American flag, on top of which she displays a variety of ceramic objects—some of which she made; others are altered found objects. “I had been seeing more Chinese grandmas selling cereal boxes and other small food items set up on tarps around Civic Center in San Francisco, and my heart broke,” Lu said. “Near Civic Center is the Asian Art Museum, which has all these invaluable Chinese cultural objects, and yet, the people of that culture are routinely dismissed or ignored.”

Lu’s work is also featured in the group shows at the Marin Museum of Contemporary Art, on view through June 5th, and Woodland, California’s Barn Gallery, through June 11th. At the former show, Lu conveys the failures of the American Dream through ceramic dream pillows inspired by those of the Song and Tang dynasties.

Steven Young Lee

B. 1975, Chicago. Lives and works in Helena, Montana.

Steven Young Lee
Vase with Yellow Glaze and Lobed Rim, 2020
Duane Reed Gallery

With a graphic designer father and a mother who studied art in college, Steven Young Lee grew up in a home filled with creativity. He has always been drawn to clay, even as a child, he wrote Artsy via email, but it wasn’t until he started working on the potter’s wheel during his senior year of high school that his interest became closer to an obsession.

Lee created functional pottery in the early years of his career, but contrary to industry conventions, he still saw value in the pieces that came out of the kiln cracked or otherwise less than pristine. Now, Lee creates jars that rupture and vases that collapse in on themselves, questioning notions tying perfection with worth.

“I am interested in exposing the true nature of the porcelain clay, allowing it to shrink, crack, and warp and also letting glazes run off the edges of the vessels,” Lee wrote. “The material and form is given space to evolve on its own outside of my control as the maker.” Shaping works intended to transform in unexpected ways in the firing process, Lee invites the kiln to be a collaborator in his art practice. While methods such as kintsugi reevaluate ideas of imperfection through repair, Lee’s vessels go further by embracing the fractured and broken.

At first glance, the motifs on Lee’s blue-and-white porcelain vases appear like those from China’s Ming dynasty or Korea’s Joseon dynasty. However, a closer viewing reveals the presence of the Batman symbol, dinosaurs, UFOs, rocket ships, and a phoenix with the head of a bald eagle. “My work hopes to capture a similar sensibility [as the ceramics traded along the Silk Road] in that the pieces reflect what is happening from a contemporary viewpoint,” Lee said, referring to the historical role of porcelain in cultural exchange. “I very much want to honor tradition and historical representation but also cross-reference these elements from different cultural sources, East and West, to set up unfamiliar, discordant or ironic relationships.”

Charlie Mai

B. 1995, Arlington, Virginia. Lives and works in Bogotá.

Charlie Mai
Ama (Wack Wack Wack, Another DiSatisfied Customer), 2020
Steve Turner

In Charlie Mai’s ceramic sculptures, an Asian grandma trades her brown, traditional clothes and plain black clogs for a bright matching set from Pyer Moss’s spring 2020 ready-to-wear collection and hot-pink Balenciaga “Speed” sneakers. Elsewhere, a young Asian girl with her hair tied into pigtails with Versace scrunchies reads with a man who wears around his head a Louis Vuitton silk scarf from its spring/summer 2003 collaboration with Takashi Murakami.

Mai transforms found ceramic objects purchased from antique shops in Virginia, upstate New York, and along his travels. “The presence of Asianness in the shops was always ceramic, either in the form of figurines or vessels,” the artist recalled. “It’s funny to me to see them hanging out with a bunch of porcelain ballerinas or Sambo figurines, they’re like tiny museums of America’s twisted racial imaginary.”

Charlie Mai, Dad, I am no child, I am the moment (“Whether it’s through retribution or indebtedness,”), 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

Mai’s work is intergenerational, both in content and in practice. He takes vintage Asian ceramic figures and incorporates contemporary fashion, occasionally adding sculpted elements. Creating each piece is also a familial affair. Mai plans and designs the outfits in advance and paints the pieces with his father, who tackles the finer details. Mai describes his father as the better painter of the two, given his experience painting miniature fantasy figurines from the tabletop game Warhammer. “I thought, ‘If he can paint a necklace on a Slann Mage Priest, he can definitely paint a tiny Gucci slide,’” Mai said. “The first figure I sold had a pair of Gucci slides. I used the money to buy my dad the same pair. Now he wears them while he mows the lawn.”

The collaborative experience has led Mai to a greater understanding of the differences between his own lived experiences and his father’s. Mai confessed that he previously carried resentment towards his father for his desire to assimilate, but now has more empathy, taking into account the factors influencing the decisions his father has made. Oftentimes, assimilation can feel necessary for survival for immigrants and earlier generations in ways that younger generations have not had to experience.

Charlie Mai, Papa (Gauge Depth Before Jumping), 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

Charlie Mai, Good Sci Fi (Like Mint Floss Through Wedding Cake), 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

These tensions converge with designer attire in Mai’s sculptures, addressing themes of labor exploitation and wealth disparity. “I think that my grandparents, and probably many of our grandparents, thought that they could earn or spend their way out of being looked down on, diminished, used,” Mai said. “I dressed the figures this way at first as kind of a reminder that we can’t.” In more recent works, Mai started including younger brands with Asian, Black, or Latinx founders, including Sandy Liang, Telfar, and Coloured Publishing, co-founded by artist Devin Troy Strother and designer Yuri Ogita. “What started as a critique of assimilation through capital became more a celebration of self actualization and solidarity,” Mai added.

“The first figure I sold had a pair of Gucci slides. I used the money to buy my dad the same pair. Now he wears them while he mows the lawn.”

Good Sci Fi (Like Mint Floss Through Wedding Cake) (2020) references not an Asian American fashion designer, but an artist. Mai’s bearded figure wears a deep V-neck shirt printed with Martin Wong’s Tell My Troubles to the Eight Ball (Eureka) (1978–81), reminiscent of the hoodies and button-up t-shirts released in Supreme’s fall/winter 2019 collection in collaboration with the late artist’s estate. “A lot of types of queerness, especially that of people like Martin Wong, were so much about diffusing across all kinds of boundaries. Asianness is very that,” Mai said. “It resists definition with a kind of extravagant confusion. For me, Asianness and queerness are inseperable.”

Candice Lin

B. 1979, Concord, Massachusetts. Lives and works in Los Angeles.

Candice Lin, installation view of La Charada China, 2018, in “Made in L.A.” at the Hammer Museum, 2018. Photo by Ian Byers-Gamber. Courtesy of the artist, Hammer Museum, and François Ghebaly Gallery.

Working with clay in its raw and fired forms, Candice Lin introduces the material in gallery and institutional spaces to unearth lesser-known histories of the plight of people of color. In her installation for the Hammer Museum’s “Made in L.A. 2018” exhibition, La China Charada (2018), a raised platform made of red clay, cement, seeds, and guano features a human-shaped recess embedded with the seeds of sugarcane, opium poppy, and poisonous plants from the Caribbean. The materials reference the history of indentured Chinese laborers who worked alongside enslaved Africans on sugar plantations in the Caribbean, in cement production in Cuba, and in guano harvesting in Peru. The silhouette in the cracking clay speaks to the absence in popular consciousness of the forced importation of hundreds of thousands of Chinese people to the Caribbean from 1847 to 1874.

Candice Lin
Witness (Blue Version), 2019
François Ghebaly

At the international exhibition of the 59th Venice Biennale, Lin presents ceramic sculptures of swamp creatures made from clay sourced around the former site of the multiracial fishing village Saint Malo in Louisiana. Saint Malo is believed to be the first Asian American settlement in the United States, started by Filipino indentured laborers from Manila who jumped ship en route to Spanish colonies in South America. They were later joined by Chinese indentured workers and formerly enslaved Africans—one of whom, Juan San Maló, the settlement was named after.

Ceramics reappear across Lin’s practice as witnesses to such overlooked histories. In her solo exhibitions “Meaningless Squiggles” (2019) at François Ghebaly in Los Angeles and “Pigs & Poison” (2020) at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth, New Zealand, Lin’s “Witness” sculptures wear ceramic masks that reference scold’s bridles and iron muzzles. Originating from different contexts, both mechanisms were used to silence and repress speech. In Lin’s exhibitions, the sculptures attest to individuals who have found ways to bear witness in spite of suppressive environments.

Candice Lin
Bridal Scold (Animal), 2019
François Ghebaly

Candice Lin, installation view of “A Hard White Body” at Bétonsalon, 2017. Photo by Aurélien Mole. Courtesy of the artist, Bétonsalon, and François Ghebaly Gallery.

In her 2017 exhibition “A Hard White Body” at Bétonsalon in Paris, porcelain was a primary focus. Influenced by her research into the material and how it was praised in an 18th-century British handbook for its “pure white…hard, superior body,” Lin constructed a life-size bedroom made of unfired porcelain. The installation was based on James Baldwin’s 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room and descriptions of the ship cabin of Jeanne Baret, the first woman to circumnavigate the world.

Lin hung a misting system above the unfired sculptures to disperse herbal tea, water from the Seine, and distilled urine from the artist, exhibition visitors, and museum workers in an attempt to keep the porcelain from cracking. Instead, the material dried out, cracked, grew mushrooms, and turned yellow. Under Lin’s hand, the porcelain physically resisted colonial expectations of white purity and strength, becoming stained and brittle.

Heidi Lau

B. 1987, Macau. Lives and works in New York.

Heidi Lau, installation view of Receptor, 2022, in “Gardens as Cosmic Terrains” at Green-Wood Cemetery, 2022. Photo by Lance Brewer. Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Brown.

Heidi Lau, installation view of Yearning, 2022, in “Gardens as Cosmic Terrains” at Green-Wood Cemetery, 2022. Photo by Lance Brewer. Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Brown.

At Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, Heidi Lau has been going on long solitary walks and working until midnight in preparation for her solo exhibition “Gardens as Cosmic Terrains,” on view through July 3rd. As the cemetery’s inaugural artist in residence, Lau has taken over the catacombs with textured sculptures that she’s been working on since December of last year. “In some ways, it feels not haunted here, it’s really weird,” Lau said in an interview with Artsy a few days before the exhibition opening. “I’ve done so many residencies at this point, and some of them are definitely very haunted, but this doesn’t feel like it and I’m pretty sensitive to it.”

It was at a residency in Ireland that Lau, who trained in printmaking, started working with clay. The self-taught artist felt that her explorations of Taoist mythology, precolonial history, and post-human futures—abstract and intangible concepts—were best translated when given a physical form.

“I’m always trying to think about how I can envision a different future that’s seated in the past that already has anti-colonial beliefs.”

For her exhibition at Green-Wood Cemetery, Lau originally wanted to work with Chinese funeral homes in nearby Sunset Park to recreate elaborate Taoist rites, reminiscent of the ones performed when her grandparents died. Following the outbreak of COVID-19 and the overwhelming number of lives lost to the virus, Lau felt it wasn’t appropriate to be engaging with essential services and changed course.

The influence of Lau’s grandparents, however, can still be seen in “Gardens as Cosmic Terrains.” Lau credits her interest in the afterlife to her grandmother. After contracting typhoid at the age of four, Lau’s grandmother became the goddaughter of the gatekeeper of hell in an act of protection, through a ritual performed by a Taoist monk. “Every time we went to the temple, she would be like, ‘Say hi to your god great-grandfather!’” Lau shared. “Because of her, I always feel like it’s very porous between the living and the dead. I almost don’t question that the supernatural is already part of the environment I live in.”

Heidi Lau, detail of ___ has questions for Moon’s reflection, 2021, in “Gardens as Cosmic Terrains” at Green-Wood Cemetery, 2022. Photo by Lance Brewer. Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Brown.

The exhibition references the Chinese mythological deity Nüwa from Classics of Mountains and Seas, a text Lau often returns to. “​​It’s a Taoist creation myth and one of the monsters is both a gardener and the most fierce killer. I thought of that as my grandpa,” Lau explained. “I was reading a lot about how Chinese gardens are a miniature of the cosmos, like the pathways and fake rocks. I saw my grandpa trying to recreate it in his own home.” In “Gardens as Cosmic Terrains,” Lau cultivates a ceramic garden, mapping out her own cosmos.

Her sculptures are filled with contradictions—evoking ruins and future societies, death and regeneration simultaneously. The two sculptures that make up Creatures of the Unyielding Wind II (2022), for example, lean towards each other to form an asymmetrical archway. At their base are human faces, from which rock formations seem to spring out. Humans, vessels, chains, and landscapes merge in Lau’s vision of the future. “I feel the reason why I look at Taoist mythology is because so many of these myths are anti-authoritarian, very queer,” Lau said. “I’m always trying to think about how I can envision a different future that’s seated in the past that already has anti-colonial beliefs.”

Heidi Lau, installation view of Creatures of the Unyielding Wind II, 2022, in “Gardens as Cosmic Terrains” at Green-Wood Cemetery, 2022. Photo by Lance Brewer. Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Brown.

Due to her upbringing in Macau (which Lau represented at the 58th Venice Biennale) while it was still a Portuguese colony, Lau initially tried to distance herself from the colonial legacy of ceramics. She was exposed to a lot of blue-and-white ceramics, but “they don’t think of it as a Ming vase but Portuguese posh,” Lau explained. “I feel like that’s a very specific, strange, Macau phenomenon that I somehow have internalized. In the beginning, I really didn’t want to make anything smooth or very illustrative. Since then, I feel like it’s a good medium to think about old or new technology and the role it plays in colonization.”

Rebuking expectations, Lau’s ceramic sculptures ripple with energy through deep, abstract carvings. Glaze melts together into a blend of colors as it runs down the work, guided by rough surfaces that resemble bark on a tree or natural rock formations. Lau lets the kiln alter the pieces in uncontrollable ways, in stark contrast to traditional practices that prioritize precision and perfection. “That must be why my work has so much texture,” Lau laughed. “It’s not smooth like porcelain!”


B. 1990, California. Lives and works in New York.

marinatedclouds, Family, Friends, Community and Unity: One Pot Feeds All, 2021. Courtesy of the artist.

RC Shen, who goes by the artist name marinatedclouds, creates playful works that embrace nostalgia and the uncanny. A Yellow Power Ranger helmet with an outstretched split tongue, a block of cheese wearing a chunky Casio Baby-G watch, and a box of chocolates containing a brown crayon are just a few of the sculptures in Shen’s oeuvre.

With a background in graphic design, the self-taught artist was first drawn to ceramics in 2018, when she started her “35 Chicken & Rices from Around the World” series. Focusing on two key ingredients, the body of work speaks to the unifying elements that can be found across cultures, while highlighting a sense of individuality, through cuisine. Starting with Hainanese chicken rice and concluding with halal chicken and rice, Shen created each individual grain in her ceramic renditions of the dishes by hand.

marinatedclouds, Plant Seeds Patiently, Nurture Dreams Softly, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.

marinatedclouds, “teahouse of marinatedclouds,” 2021. Courtesy of the artist.

In 2019, Shen exhibited in the second annual Asian American Ceramicists Fair hosted by Wing on Wo & Co., a fifth generation–owned porcelain shop in Manhattan’s Chinatown. The following year, Cathy Lu and Jennie Jieun Lee participated, while ceramicist Stephanie H. Shih—known for her hand-built sculptures of pantry items evoking notions of home—exhibited in the inaugural edition.

Shen’s ability to transport viewers to a specific time or place through her work is particularly noteworthy, as seen in the series “teahouse of marinatedclouds” (2021). Her loving attention to detail can be seen in a stamp card for orders; white paper doilies for egg tarts and sesame balls to rest on; and cloud-shaped garlic for garnish. These works convey the experience of gathering with family in a bustling dim sum restaurant. Meanwhile, Call me Remembering Childhood: 哎呀!蛋糕 (2020) evokes memories of birthday celebrations. Served on a golden platter and topped with fresh fruit and red jelly lettering, the cake is an unmistakable staple of Chinese bakeries.

Works made in 2020 by marinatedclouds. Courtesy of the artist.

marinatedclouds, “Mom’s Home Cooking,” 2019–21. Courtesy of the artist.

Shen attributes her desire to create a sense of belonging through her works to her Taiwanese American upbringing. In “Mom’s Home Cooking” (2019–21), Shen pays tribute to this family history by recreating her mom’s signature dishes in clay, including steamed fish, stir-fried clams, and grilled shrimp. “I’m extremely proud of where I come from, and even prouder of where my parents are from,” Shen shared. “Their journey, culture, and traditions have been one of the luckiest things gifted to me.”

Harley Wong

Header image: Heidi Lau, installation view of “Gardens as Cosmic Terrains” at Green-Wood Cemetery, 2022. Photo by Lance Brewer. Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Brown.