Stella Zhong’s sculptures hinge on prepositions. Behind a prominent part, above eye level, below the floor, in the distance, between panels, or on the underside of a structure, Zhong might hide a painted image or attach a cluster of tiny components, as if they were barnacles on the underside of a boat. The relationships at times feel symbiotic: The sculptures protect or conceal their most vulnerable elements, which are also critical to the works’ functions. In other cases, spatial dynamics come across as playful, like a game of hide-and-seek in which someone is always lurking around the corner.
Zhong’s work is also full of propositions. When her bigger forms (made with materials such as painted wood, plaster, or foam) are combined with others of smaller scale (a bit of string, grains of sand, tooth-size lumps of clay), the result may evoke a sleek hybrid product with technological capabilities. Or it may seem to materialize a Daliesque painting of spindly animals and off-kilter objects in a vast landscape. Indeed, Zhong arrived at sculpture through painting, and sometimes hangs a sparse oil-on-canvas rendering of her more commonly used forms in proximity to her work, offering another imagination of her world, an odd echo.
In a 2020 exhibition at Yale University (where she completed her MFA the following year), Zhong scaled up an orange bottle cork into a 7-foot-tall cylinder made from foam, and exhibited it alongside 13 actual corks scattered on the floor. On top of the tower, barely visible, was a small scene with, among other items, huddled clay-and-Plasticine forms on toothpick-like legs and a cut circle of wax paper standing on end. She also painted this scene, and gave it the title Button 003 (2020). But what this “button” might attach to or trigger remains intriguingly open-ended. Zhong likes to keep most of her objects unnamed.
Zhong, who was born in Shenzhen, China, in 1993 and now works out of a converted factory studio in Brooklyn, has recently produced more involved installations. Last year at Chapter NY on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, she installed a painted platform a few inches above the hardwood floor and cut out finger-length shapes to provide views of abstract sculptures placed underneath. Some were roughly triangular, while others looked like bent rods that might receive an electrical signal to power a mouse’s house. The premise was loose—viewers were offered only a drawing that seemed to map out the visible and hidden elements via a simple language of points and lines. (Zhong often studies physics diagrams, which lend her drawings a diluted palette and sparse formal vocabulary.) This document did not offer labels nor a legend. Instead, small notations of empty brackets, a null symbol, and a plus and minus sign seemed to emphasize the lack of a plot, or the difficulty of translation. While many contemporary artists use opacity to shield content, speak more directly to certain communities, or encode more respectfully, Zhong seems to aim for a kind of opacity that cannot be breached—we are given the impression of another world of meaning.
The title of the Chapter NY exhibition, “comet without a tail,” referred to an oddity called Oumuamua, said to be the first known object to enter our solar system from another one and a lingering interstellar mystery that has eluded existing classifications. Zhong appreciates when scientists hit walls of understanding, and wants to replicate that sense of curiosity and limitation in her shows. In a conversation with a physicist, published this summer on the occasion of her exhibition at Adams and Ollman in Portland, Oregon, Zhong noted: “It’s interesting to me that while atoms are the smallest units of matter, they don’t necessarily provide us with a higher resolution of ‘reality.’ It seems to get weirder and more abstract the closer we look.”
For an exhibition at Fanta in Milan this past summer, Zhong’s premise was more specific, with darker if still nebulous implications. She invented a company called PLOT (Privacy Lending and Outsourcing Technologies Ltd.) that supposedly manufactured the cool-toned, quasi-industrial sculptures on view. The venue had been altered so that one had to ascend a short flight of stairs to reach a viewing platform from which to look into a submerged space resembling an empty swimming pool, its walls and floor painted a deep, velvety blue.
Near the stairs, where one might look for a ladder for the pool, dangled Off PLOT (2022). In profile, the nearly 4-foot-tall wood sculpture is crescent shaped, its surface tinged with yellow and beige striations. From the front, it appears to be made of two thin parallel pieces of wood cut in similar shapes, though the lower parts of the crescents have been sliced off and shifted left, out of alignment with the upper portions. The shorter curves were visually tugged farther in that direction by a thin string that linked the work to a nearby sculpture on the floor: 3rd Strategy of P, inconclusive (2022). Alongside two similar but differently proportioned pieces, this work looks like the fin of a submarine or a sunken plane wing. Its title suggests it could be the result of an experiment by the fictional company (with neighboring works representing other attempts, under the titles 2nd Strategy of P; inconclusive; and 4th Strategy of P, inconclusive). Given that the P stands for “privacy” in Zhong’s acronym, the goal may have been to conceal the arrangement of small, rounded parts attached under the sculptures’ overhangs, visible only if one crouches down. And yet those elements, once spotted, disclose nothing further; from what or whom they should be protected is unstated. If we read PLOT as a word—as in the plot of a story—rather than an acronym, these subtly dissimilar works could be variations on the same tale, or the stages of an animation showing how this form changes over time.
The show’s third set of works, in dialogue with the Strategy pieces, protruded from the wall at ankle level. These seven bullet-shaped forms could have been the shrunken propellers of abandoned ships—or perhaps visitors were catching them in the process of their construction, since they were arranged as if in an assembly line. A battleship-like epoxy clay sculpture titled Slow Airs xs (2022) sat on the floor across the room, already in deep waters relative to the propellers. Here, a sense of threat emerged—the blue-gray hue of the inches-long sculptures might be militaristic camouflage, making each piece as nondescript as the numeric product codes that serve as their titles: PLOT 5-1-11, PLOT 6-2-10, PLOT 7-3-9, PLOT 8-4-12. The plot thickened.
All of this set up the atmosphere of a game that viewers may not have been aware they were playing, even if they were already physically involved by ascending, squinting, and crouching to see Zhong’s artworks in full. While some of her earlier sculptures, such as unnamed(courtyard), 2018, included supporting platforms marked with lines to resemble a basketball court, her playing fields are more often implied through object relations that have become increasingly complex. In some works, Zhong threads little pieces of paper—what she calls “codes”—along strings held taut by other small elements in the sculptures. Under this premise, the threads transmit the codes from one part to another; but Zhong has said that even she at times feels excluded from her creations’ operations—that they form their own systems, independent of her plan.
This is especially true in her videos, which are less frequently exhibited but key in her working process. On a table in the corner of her Bushwick studio are plastic baggies containing the principal subjects of her video work: hundreds of similar but different clay parts—squares, irregular blobs, discs, all smaller than a fingernail—which may later find their way into sculptures. Nearby are piles of materials with the size, texture, and vivid colors of aquarium pebbles, some of them magnetized so they can be controlled with bigger magnets. She uses these materials to construct minutes-long scenes in which very little happens—but what does happen is visually rich and, again, hard to pin down. A wire, lit red, evokes a streak of light—maybe a comet’s tail—in the sky at night. The magnetized pebbles move around in piles of orange foam as if they were snakes feeding and growing in size. Even when a hand enters the frame to move an object or adjust the set, as happens in Pond in Pond (2019), the objects seem not to abide by a particular scale, and feel closer to computer animations than manipulated materials.
Zhong has more control over what we see in her videos—where the frame is fixed, so we can’t wander and look from different angles—than in her sculptures. What interests her about the films is their sometimes unsettling sense of disorientation (she compares this to the experience of mocking up a sculpture in the design program Rhino, where scale is open-ended and space is infinite) and the ASMR-like sensory experience that her subtle movements elicit. Once she understands how these elements perform in video space, she is better able to compose them in real space, where she will likewise aim to balance intense detail with sparse information.
“Intimacy and alienation” are the words Zhong uses to describe this sensory and spatial tension: it’s like two pebbles just barely touching under an open desert sky. The profound sense of loneliness might be tied to her sculptures’ evocation of lapsed technologies: man-made means of acceleration, communication, or transportation that quickly become defunct. And yet the work retains a sense of optimism in building relations and finding shelter within something much larger. This tension is not to be resolved. Instead, it is what makes the string taut and capable of transmission, even if the signal is not for our ears.