Ones to Watch
On the occasion of a new hit show at R & Company, newcomer Jolie Ngo pushes ceramics into uncharted, digital territory
Even as a high school art student in suburban Philadelphia, Jolie Ngo was a standout. “Whether it was three-dimensional or two-dimensional, it was obvious that she had talent,” says her former art teacher, Becky Desmond. “I was always amazed at what she would do with the materials we gave her, and then on top of that, what she would do by finding her own materials, like spoons.”
The utensils were of the plastic sort, which Ngo would dye vibrant hues using alcohol inks and then layer into striking 3D patterns—all while other students kept with conventional forms, such as pottery. She didn’t have the patience for all the steps involved with ceramics before finally seeing a finished piece: throwing a form on the wheel, trimming, bisque firing, glazing, refiring. “It just wasn’t for me,” Ngo says.
But in summer 2017, nearly two years after dropping out of Rhode Island School of Design—a time she spent working retail and not making art—she discovered the “gloopy” work of RISD ceramics-department alum, Brian Rochefort. On a whim, she DM’d him and asked if she could work with him. Rochefort said yes, and she went to Los Angeles to figure out if this was a field she could pursue. “I hadn’t seen someone pushing the material in that way before, and it was really exciting,” Ngo recalls. “It seemed like some sort of alchemy. I was like, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life—work with clay.’” She re-enrolled that fall, and in 2020, earned an undergraduate degree in ceramics.
Today, Ngo, who turned 26 in March, is in her final semester of an MFA program at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University. The Village of Alfred has a deep ceramic history due to the abundance of shale and rock beds in the area, and the school is ranked among the top in its field. Yet Ngo still doesn’t know how to actually throw pottery. Instead, she 3D prints her clay pieces and has made a name for herself in the world of “hyper pots,” a term coined by the curator and writer Glenn Adamson, who described them as “primed to perform on the digital stage.”
Ngo’s vivid art has found a comfortable home on Instagram. “A lot more people have seen my art online than in person,” she says. “But I’m realizing that my work can live in the home or it could be in a gallery space—but I’m not sure if that’s where it would thrive. People send me photos of my work in their homes, and it looks great, but it also seems so alien. They are like tiny environments within themselves, and I feel like I need to create an environment for them. It feels like a future form, but it also feels ancient. So, what kind of environment does that work live in?”
And just like in her younger years, her fantastical pieces have garnered attention. After she first exhibited at Design Miami/ in 2021, she was approached by several galleries. “It’s almost unheard of,” says Zesty Meyers, who cofounded R & Company gallery in New York with Evan Snyderman. “We’ve never worked with somebody without a professional practice going on. And it’s a different thing to work with somebody like that. We have to be patient.”
Meyers, who formed the glassblowing performance-art group B Team in the 1990s, says, “We look for people that are pushing ideas, concepts, techniques forward. Jolie is using 3D printing, but she is using techniques from different areas like airbrushing—not traditional glazing of ceramics—and then adding other handmade parts that put it in a direction we’d never seen.”
For Ngo, choosing to sign with R & Company was easy. “I loved that they both [Meyers and Snyderman] worked in a craft-based medium,” she says, adding that the supportive, pro-school environment swayed her too. “I don’t want external pressure to be making work and having to send it off. I want to be able to focus on my studies. Zesty was really understanding about that.”
Ngo draws a connection between her work and artist Isamu Noguchi’s Contoured Playground and landscape designs. “I’ve been conditioned to become a world builder when I’m in a digital space, based on the games that I used to play when I was younger,” she says. Ngo, who is part Vietnamese, also feels a kinship with Noguchi because he, too, was biracial. “He was trying to reconcile these two spaces that he occupied but wasn’t ever really fully able to claim. That’s how I feel.”
Ngo still hasn’t fully come to terms with the marginality in an academic world long known for its patriarchy. “I don’t know a lot of Vietnamese women that are also working in ceramics,” she says. “It’s exciting for me to be that for other people because I really wish that was something I had. I think I’m starting to realize that it’s definitely a point of power.”
This story was written by Claudine Ko, and first appeared in Design District Magazine, Issue 1 2022. It has been slightly edited.
Jolie Ngo’s new solo show, Memory Palace, is on view now through August 12th at R & Company in NYC.