Artist Kennedy Yanko tells me one painfully hot summer afternoon: “I’m interested in imbuing the life that I’ve been thinking about as my hands touch the work in other ways.” And her abstract yet representational sculptures do emanate some sense of life. Though recently, Yanko has been working to make her works larger than life.
The St. Louis-born and Brooklyn-based sculptor, painter, and installation artist recently received the honor of being named the first sculptor chosen for the Rubell Museum’s artist residency this year. During her time in Miami, Yanko was supplied with a forklift, a cargo van, a scissor lift, all within 36,000 square feet of space. The residency was her playground. Through this experience—the work from which Yanko will be showing at Art Basel Miami Beach in December—the artist dramatically scaled up her works made from paint skins and scrap metal.
Yanko’s process is unique. It’s one of utilizing found materials—scrap metal scavenged from junkyards up and down the East Coast—and paint skins, created from a process of pouring out large puddles of paint and allowing it to dry for a particular amount of time. Not too long, or the skins will become too hard to work with, and not too brief, or the skins will be, well, just paint. Yanko’s paint skins are then molded around scrap metal that’s been warped, welded, twisted, and bent, resulting in relatively industrial yet somehow organic structures. Paint skins fold over like the wrinkles in our neck. Not only is the process of creating these works bodily, but the works themselves are seemingly representations of the body.
Indeed, Yanko refers to the works as representational paintings, which continue to be a proxy for the artist’s occupation of space. The artist’s recent solo show at Vielmetter Los Angeles, “Salient Queens”, is a testament to said occupation. Each work is named after a woman important to Yanko’s own understanding of her womanhood in relation to space. “K” hangs in the middle of the exhibition, her long locks of paint skin cascading off her head, “Julia II” hangs on the wall, her skirt trailing behind, “Gussie” stands aside, her posture erect, positioned proudly. While Yanko’s work engages with cerebral and occasionally esoteric conversations, there is an innate humanity to them.
Yanko will additionally be showcasing works in collaboration with Genevieve Gaignard for Vielmetter at this year’s Armory Show in New York in September. Here, the artist discusses the importance of one’s mind scaling from small to large, the thrill won in causing a double take in a witness to her art, and the imperative of risks and risk-taking within her peer set.
Some recent big news– you’re the Rubell Museum of Art 2021 artist in residence! How does it feel to be the first sculptor to be awarded this residency?
The Rubell’s—Don and Mera—have this steadfast intention to let the artist do what they want; to achieve something they haven’t had the space, time, or opportunity to do. While I was there, I had the chance to realize work that’d been living in me for years—work of a larger-than-life scale. They let me do it with such ease, such trust, and offered resources instead of rebuttals. What they’re doing there is something magical and necessary.
Where does scale fit into your practice—how did you arrive at sculpture, and where do you foresee yourself going with it in the future?
When I first started working in sculpture, a lot of the pieces that I made were maquettes for larger versions that I’m finally now able to put into practice. My mind likes to oscillate between small and large scale—micro and macro—zeroing in on details and then zooming out to all-encompassing big pictures.
In the future, I see myself playing further with this duality, and digging into technologies that support it; I’d like to learn more about holograms, and other technologies that simultaneously support the user, viewer, or participant going from a grounded to soaring state. From an immediate reality to something even more expansive. Installation is where I find I’m able to do that most successfully.
What themes and subject matter are you focusing on these days? What can we expect to see from you come December, during Art Basel?
I’m making moves towards hyperreal abstraction. I want to push the animation of my work, making visible the life I see within my materials. I think that involves changing the environment to some degree, inviting light to play in the space more. I won’t say too much more about that, but I’m interested in imbuing the life that I’ve been thinking about as my hands touch the work in other ways.
You’ll also have a booth with Vielmetter at this year’s Armory Show. How are you preparing for that exhibition? What are you working on?
Yes, I’m excited about it. I’ll be exhibiting with Genevieve Gaignard at Armory. Formally, our work is very different, but the way we’ve decided to engage each other’s color palettes is going to create a strong dialogue and sharp contrast. I’ll be pulling from some of my older (and some of my favorite) more muted, cooler, and dustier tones for the metal and paint skins—like ‘Breathing’ from my show at UICA, Before Words. I spent the last six months looking for the metal for it—which I finally have—and just poured the skins at the start of July. Now I’m literally waiting on paint to dry, but this is my favorite part of the process: the beginning, where I can make formal decisions as to what can happen next in the space. The space around my work’s become more and more important to me over time, as I alluded to previously in talking about the work’s environment. It’ll be interesting for me to see how this subdued, surreal work functions alongside Genevieve’s less abstract world.
You use scrap metal you’ve scavenged from around NYC. How important is it that you’ve used recycled materials, or in the case of the paint skins, materials in ways different from how they were originally intended?
The way the material shows up for me is how it was intended to be. I think of things as made from atoms that are rearrangeable, malleable, and fluid. It’s important for me to find reciprocity between the metal and paint skin that I use, but I rarely think of myself as using materials in different ways than they were intended to be used. I do, however, enjoy the perhaps unexpected dialogue that emerges between the materials I choose; when viewers can’t immediately tell what’s metal, or what’s paint skin, and where they begin, end, separate or come together. That’s thrilling.
You’ve said your work aims to be a ‘conduit’ to culture’s pulses. What about contemporary culture inspires you? What concerns you?
I think I’m inspired by this potential and intense turning point in civilization. We’ve never had as much access to information as we have now, and I think in my heart of hearts, I’ve been enjoying the destruction of systemic structures. It’s time for new ways of doing things. We have to break things down for that to happen. So I’m inspired by the possibility and exploration there, and that we’re basically on the precipice of a new civilization. What concerns me is the lack of critical thinking, creative thinking, and the rigor for a particular specialty. I think it’s important that people find what they’re best at and do it. And I’d like to see more collaboration among specialists. I think scientists and doctors should be talking to artists, and architects, and anthropologists, and mathematicians should be talking to artists and, well, everyone should be talking to artists—and artists should be talking.
How are you inspired by the work of artists in your generational peer set?
I’m most inspired by artists pushing materiality—the actual materials or the constructs and confines of their industries—who are finding language and possibility in existing mediums that others haven’t. I think that as we construct our future societal applications, we can’t be stuck on what we perceive to be definitive, I think we need to be challenging the limitations of what we are given every day. Watching my friends do that fearlessly—or with fear and still doing it— that’s what really inspires me. So often when I’m making individual pieces, I start out looking at a mammoth. There I am, standing at the foot of a two-story tall pile of metal, and I don’t know how I’m going to do this. Every single time I forget how I do it, and I have to look at each sculpture with new eyes. I have to dive into that part of the process without an answer. I have to start, and I have to do it, and somehow it always figures itself out. I think it’s that willingness, that risk, and that letting go of knowing that really inspires me within my peer group. Everyone is pushing so hard to make it happen and to do better.