Metalworker David Huang refers to his works as “vessels,” but it’s little wonder people also call them “treasures.” On first sight, it’s hard to know what to call them; technically, they’re indeed metallic vessels, but it’s inconceivable that they would ever actually be used. Their interiors, after all, are lined with 23 karat gold. They’re indisputably beautiful, but the statement they make isn’t just visual.
Galleries across the United States have shown Huang’s art, and his work has recently achieved international reach (including multiple shows in Japan). The exhibition Treasure! brings Huang’s work to the Ella Sharp Museum in Jackson, Michigan. Here, owing to the nature of the gallery space, his diminutive copper, silver, and gold vessels are displayed behind glass, and visitors must keep a modest distance. But they’ll nevertheless be struck by the attention to detail Huang gives each piece.
These vessels loosely follow a formula, though no two are alike. They’re generally small enough to comfortably fit in the hand, and their asymmetrical, organic shapes conjure mental images of some sort of yet-to-be-discovered exotic fruit. They’re calculatedly impractical; because they don’t rest upright, we’re inclined to approach them as sculptural rather than utilitarian objects. If we lean in close, we see that they’re covered in geometric patterns set within geometric patterns. Others are coated with a thin patina, lending them a smooth, luminous sheen of marbled, earthy shades of green and brown, the result of oxidation. Gold leaf lines each vessel’s interior, thoroughly undermining their functionality.
Huang likes to define the word “vessel” broadly; it could signify anything from a ship, an egg (some of his vessels indeed look like a sort of egg), or the human body. The latter seems to carry particular resonance in his work, particularly given the distinct “personalities” he lends each piece. “I see them as metaphors for us as individuals,” He explains to me. “We have these physical earthy bodies as our vessels housing a radiant spirit within.”
But Huang writes that his work also gently evokes timeless and universal ideals of beauty, observing that gold was associated with spirituality long before it was commoditized and repurposed as money. Ultimately, gold was (and is) prized not because of its monetary value, but because of its beauty. Huang’s work wonderfully underscores the simple point that beauty itself has intrinsic value. This is surely what G.K. Chesterton was getting at when he wrote, “All is gold that glitters/For the glitter is the gold.”
Treasure! Is on view at the Ella Sharp Museum until January 28, but his work frequently appears in galleries and museums elsewhere in Michigan. Much of his work (and many images) can be found on the webpage of LaFontsee Galleries in Grand Rapids, which has a large collection of his work. Huang’s website not only has a comprehensive set of images, but also some interesting behind-the-scenes studio images.