Jolie Ngo’s Girl With Fans is a blobby, rippled vessel with lollipop-like piercings and fins that appears to be oozing with glaze. The piece, which was inspired by traditional Vietnamese fans, is actually 3-D-printed in clay and was exhibited at Design Miami in December. But perhaps the place it lives most comfortably is online. “I want my pieces to look like they are renderings,” she says.
Though Ngo is currently in the first year of a ceramics MFA program at Alfred University, her work has already caught the eye of collectors and curators. Her BFA thesis from RISD — a series named 100 Vases — was highlighted by the curator and historian Glenn Adamson on his personal Instagram (he was also Ngo’s adviser at RISD) and sold out in a matter of days. Buyers included Michelle Milar Fisher, a Museum of Fine Arts Boston curator, and the design gallerist Zoe Fisher, who commissioned work from Ngo for the Essential Goods exhibition at Fisher Parrish last summer. And the inclusion of Girl With Fans and two of her other works in Design Miami — a kingmaker for artists and designers who make collectible furniture and objects — is as big a break as any. And to think that just a few years ago, Ngo was vehemently opposed to working with ceramics. “I hated how long it took, I hated the process, and I was really against glazing, which is so silly to think of because it’s something I really enjoy doing now,” she says.
Ngo, who is 24 and was born and raised in Philadelphia, entered RISD as a sculpture student in 2014. After the first semester, she knew it wasn’t right for her, so she decided to take time off. Meanwhile, contemporary ceramics were booming, which got her thinking: Maybe this is something to revisit? Then Ngo read Glen Adamson’s 2019 essay, “The Rise of the Hyper Pot” and things began to click.
In the essay, Adamson described a type of pottery that had “all the earmarks of Instagram bait: eye-popping color, a strong graphic silhouette, just the right balance of weirdness and familiarity.” That weirdness often came from their dripping surfaces, crackly finishes, and hyper-pigmented hues, but what might appear haphazard and organic actually demonstrates a mastery of the chemistry involved in achieving these effects. If you’ve seen Seth Rogen’s ceramics, you’ve seen a hyper pot. Artists like Anton Alvarez and Takuro Kuwata are also hyper-pot makers, though it’s not a name that the artists use themselves. To say you’re making something optimized for an algorithm could be perceived as a slight, but to Ngo, it’s an exciting challenge. She wants to crack the algorithmic code.
“I’ve been obsessed with making what I think a hyper pot should be,” Ngo says. “It’s obvious that some of my professors and cohort think Instagram is evil, but I think it’s a really wonderful tool and my work thrives there. It looks great in person, but the habitat it belongs in is this hyperspace.” You can see this in the bubble vessels that Ngo made in her recent collaboration with independent fashion brand Tyler McGillivary; the ultra-saturated, gradient-blended objects look like she pulled them straight out of a pixelated ’90s webpage into the real world.
To achieve that effect, Ngo plays with shapes and volumes in Rhino, a 3-D-modeling program, until she finds a satisfying form. Then she prints out tests using a potter bot, which is essentially a robotic syringe that squeezes out clay into whatever shape is programmed, layer by layer. (It’s not all that different from a coil-pinch pot.) Not everything she programs can be printed, however. “Sometimes you’re asking something really unrealistic from the material, but I lean into that,” she says. She often prints and fires multiples of the same design, subtly tweaking it until it feels right. When the vessels are fired, they keep the fabrication language of the potter bot — those little ripples on the surface — and Ngo uses stencils and an airbrush to apply a very thin glaze so that you can still see that texture. Often, artists who glaze their 3-D-printed ceramics don’t do this, though. “They hide the surface and the printed language you get,” Ngo says. “And I think [the texture] is what makes them so wonderful.”
“Sometimes I am embarrassed to say I 3-D print clay because people have such a particular idea of what that looks like,” Ngo says. (In other words, not good.) “A lot of people just post videos of their object being printed — and there’s nothing wrong with that — but I just find it to be really performative, like it’s about the performance of the printer and not about the actual object.” For Ngo, digital fabrication is not the only focus of her work. As she says, “I lean into the post-internet aesthetic,” referring to a loosely defined artistic movement that explores the internet’s effects on visual culture, in real life and online.
But a hyper pot is not just about skewing the algorithms. As Adamson wrote, hyper pots still play the symbolic role that ceramics have long held: challenging the clean, industrial surfaces of mass production and modern capitalism with a handmade, belabored aesthetic, but happens to be one that the digital realm really appreciates.
Ngo melds those worlds together. While digital design and fabrication can sometimes have the aura of precision engineering, it’s more idiosyncratic — and more emotional — in Ngo’s hands. Her sensibility is also inspired by Betty Woodman, a postwar ceramic artist (and Alfred alum) associated with the Pattern & Decoration movement, which asserted that the surface of an object can convey complex meanings. Ngo’s first major project, 100 Vases, takes this surface experimentation to extreme lengths; every single vessel is radically different.
100 Vases actually spun off from an exercise her therapist had suggested to her about a year and a half ago: Go on 100 dates (which could just be getting coffee or going on a walk) to practice meeting new people. That idea didn’t stick. She went on a few, but quickly stopped because she didn’t like it. Instead, Ngo thought she could make 100 vases (which she actually wanted to do) to achieve the same end: to get comfortable fully expressing herself. This coincided with a personal milestone; she had decided to become sober around the same time she began working with clay.
Ngo cast 100 vases from a mold made from one of her 3-D-printed designs. She came to think of each blank vessel as a symbol of her body, and then applied different ornamentation to each to symbolize her struggle to reconnect with her past self before sobriety. One is covered in a mossy-green texture, another in lustre paints and airbrushed gradients, while others are scrawled with hand-painted phrases like: “My thesis show was canceled and I’ll cry if I want to.” The drippy, gloopy glazes are especially meaningful; they remind her of “my memories of myself before becoming sober,” she says. “Every time I revisit these memories, they ooze and melt into each other.”
She finished the series during the first weeks of the pandemic, and sold them later that summer. “I kind of feel a little regret selling all of them,” she says. “[At the time] I was just like: I don’t want to hold onto these. Am I going to carry these around the rest of my life? They filled up three or four big Rubbermaid containers, and it’s where they would live for the rest of their lives. I felt they should go to homes where people would put them on display.”
Now she’s somewhat reluctantly trying to scale up her work, at the suggestion of her instructors at Alfred. Most of Ngo’s work to date is quite small — Girl With Fans is just nine inches tall. The tool she works with can only print about 13-inch volumes, and she thinks the texture of her work doesn’t always translate to bigger things. Her latest experiment is a 3-D-printed chair. To make it, she has to break up the design into 40 different parts for printing and then stick the prints together. But the stretcher bar between the legs keeps falling apart. Ngo remains undaunted.
Even though she’s had tremendous success so far — after exhibiting at Design Miami, she was told time and again that she was one of the show’s breakout stars, and was also included in shows at the Shelter in Place Gallery and at Shoshanna Wayne — she is wrestling with what this success, and exposure, for her early work means. She’s not interested in being pigeonholed. “I feel grateful to have these opportunities,” she says. But, she admits, “I feel weirdly conflicted because I am also a student and time is so limited here. I should focus on experimenting and expanding my practice, but it’s hard since I don’t want to say no.”