The Work of Yuyen Chang

Should I look, or look away? In an instant, Yuyen Chang confounds the viewer. Her complicated work plays on our innate attraction to jewelry, its invitation to gaze, and our equally human repulsion from physical deformities: scars, growths, cysts, wounds. As baubles and boils incite these diametrically opposed responses, Chang’s difficult pieces send one scrambling for the socially appropriate behavior.

Untitled (brooch), “Orifice Series,” 2001
Copper, 2x2x2″
Photo Jim Wildeman

Yuyen Chang’s work is intentionally anthropomorphic, disturbingly so. She likens her technique to that of a plastic surgeon, shaping and sculpting on and beneath the surface, using traditional fabrication methods like die-forming, chasing, and repousse. Yet Yuyen Chang’s goal is hardly to beautify or’ improve’ her subjects; she labors to distort, to subvert. Though Chang made these pieces while still a student, she reveals an awareness of the allure-enhancing and status-bestowing powers of jewelry, especially in modern society, as well as our obsession with erasing any wrinkle, bulge, or flaw.

A most unusual jewelry artist, Chang bypasses witty and aims straight for unsettling. If one were simply to describe her navel- or mouth like brooches, they might seem wry or humorous, but in the flesh, as it were, her jewelry incites not a smile but a straight face-maybe even a wince. This is volatile territory, indeed; deformities are not a laughing matter. But our compulsion to look at them, Chang proves, is a fruitful topic for art indeed, especially art meant to be worn on the body.

Consider the brooches in her “Orifice Series'”. At their center is an irregular orifice, from which poke crowded tongues? Fingers? Genitals? The brooches feel not quirky but creepy, sinister, abnormal. A similar sensation is elicited by a copper pendant in the same series. While finely executed, its bivalve, bloated form recalls a medical specimen, a detached organ, as if the owner were showing off her recently removed tonsils in a jar.

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The brooches in Chang’s most recent “Chi-Pa Series” assume more amorphic, growth-like contours. The artist coined the term “chi-pa” by combining the Chinese word for beauty or talent with that for scar or wound, to capture the ambiguous quality of these works. Yet the central, fleshy, woundlike gashes make it almost impossible to call them beautiful. One suspects a line of Yuyen Chang engagement rings is all but out of the question. Her intellectual yet visceral pieces defy not only social mores, but language as well. We’re going to need a new vocabulary to praise this complex work.

Untitled (brooch), “Chi Series,” 2002
Copper, 3 x 2 x 1/2″
Photo: Jim Wildeman
Untitled (brooch), “Orifice Series,” 2001
Copper, 2.2 x 2
Photo: Jim Wildeman
Untitled (brooch), “Chi-Pa Series,” 2002
Copper, 3 x 2 x 1/2
Photo: Jim Wildema
Untitled (pendant), “Orifice Series,” 2002
Copper, silver chain, 3 x 21/2 x 2
Photo: Jim Wildeman
By Kate Hensler Fogarty [Metalsmith Magazine - Spring 2003]
Kate Hensler Fogarty is editor of Glass Quarterly
Thought-provoking columns contributed by leading observers in the field on subjects such as fashion, education, and the status of craft.
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.