Now Featuring Joe Yorty
Artist Joe Yorty’s work reflects the maximalism of middle class domestic life, the kitsch, the consumerism, the aspirational tchotchkes. He mines found objects for critique of the American Dream, but treats his materials with an informal affection that injects tenderness and humor into the work.
MH: Can you talk about the relationship with the time period of the materials you use in your collages and installations? You’re referencing American domestic life, but you’re also quoting materials from as certain part of the 20th century.
JY: My direct intention isn’t to address a certain time period with my work – it’s just a by-product of the process of collecting and choosing materials for projects. I spend a lot of time at thrift stores, yard sales, estate sales, and swap meets collecting objects and materials that I think I might use in the studio. These places are filled with cast offs usually from the distant past. Though I am seeing a lot more “newer” things being sold second-hand ‒ I think that’s just a symptom of hyper-consumerism.
Nostalgia and memory also play an important role in my studio. I think there’s lot of sadness inherent in memories connected to the home ‒ sadness as nostalgia or sadness (even trauma) associated with memory. I grew up in a home and in an environment very much at odds with the values I live my life with now. When memories are triggered with the sight of a particular object, pattern, or color I experience both kinds of sadness. That nostalgia-sadness-trauma tension in my own life is what I try to address in my own work. I think that it’s funny that I talk about my work in this way because I also try to insert an element of humor in it all. I guess a better word for “nostalgia-sadness-trauma” would be just pathos. I think my work is about pathos and memory as it relates to the middle-class American home.
MH: What’s your studio process like? How do your assemblages come together?
JY: The process begins with collecting. I search out material in my daily life. Sometimes a project begins because an idea is generated from a specific object. More often, though, the collection that lives in my studio (portions of my studio look like a thrift store) are picked from to make formal arrangements of objects and flat materials. The assembling process is mostly intuitive. A project is started simply by playing with objects in the studio. Sometimes the entire process of a project is only that – playing with objects. I’ve learned to trust this two part process – the collecting part and the studio part. I’ve had more fun making work this way than I ever have. I think I’ll stick with it for a while.
MH: You really mine second hand materials – both real thrifted objects and also digital detritus – in an energetic and delightful way. How do you collect items to work with? Do you look for certain things for a project or do you build projects based on what you’re finding?
JY: My collection of digital images comes almost exclusively from the free section of Craigslist. Over the years I’ve been drawn to the images on advertisements for “leisure objects” – couches, recliners, Jacuzzis, barbecues. I’ve said that the photograph that accompanies a Craigslist ad in the free section is close to the least valuable photograph in the world – maybe a little more valuable than the picture you accidentally take while your camera (phone) is in your pocket or your purse. I’m drawn to these images because they have so little value.
This way of thinking also plays a part in the way I collect physical things too. There is definitely a more intuitive and idiosyncratic thing taking place when I’m collecting physical stuff. My reach is so long with the internet so I can be very particular in the types of digital images I collect, but my reach for physical things is very short and is limited to geography and the amount of time I give myself to second-hand shop.
MH: Can you talk about the language of abstraction you’ve developed in your work? You make some very chunky, organic forms from quick-dry concrete, but also some very clean, geometric, hard edged forms in other materials.
JY: I’ve tried to build a tension in the way I use materials when I’m building things (as opposed to using found objects). I’m particularly drawn to faux-finishes – shelf paper, wallpaper, Formica, cultured marble. There’s something profane in using these materials to mimic these “important” and “serious” forms. The New York Minimalism and So Cal finish fetish movements seemed to me to take themselves so seriously, and were so macho and hetero. For me, I think it’s something to rub against. Also, the wood grain and faux stone finish has its relationship to the American home. These materials were made for them. It’s inauthentic luxury, a half-assed attempt at fancy. There’s so little hope in it all and I think that’s funny.
A project I did in grad school sort of set me off on the way I use concrete now. For the Mirrorshelf pieces I did in 2012, I was interested in making a decorative object with as little money and effort as possible. Pre-mixed concrete is super cheap and easy to use. I “made” objects with concrete and Oops paint (Home Depot reject paint – also very cheap) and displayed them on these weird mirror shelf wood shop project things I collected. The way I use it now is to cast it in geometric forms. I still purposefully use shitty technique to make these objects and I think this ties back into this idea of rubbing against ‘60s Minimalist sculpture. Also, I think that chunky concrete texture is actually quite lovely when it is coated with paint or rubber. It starts to look like something else.
MH: I like how you called out the heteronormative tone you see in a lot of minimalist art that feels hypermasculine and somehow luxe at the same time. (Judd is a great example.) And there is something sneaky about inserting potentially queer content into a critique that could initially be read as being about class, not sexuality. Can you expand a little more on this part of your work?
JY: Queerness in my work is something I’ve wrestled with. For a long time I didn’t think about it – I wasn’t interested in making that type of critique. I realized later that maybe it was something I couldn’t avoid. I still don’t set out to make work about sexuality – the main critique in the work is indeed about class. And some of the work is about gender – this is where I begin to think about queerness in relation to my work. Also, I think an artist can agitate by using certain types of materials that can be read as queer. I’m interested in that point where material and form allow the work to tip into a sort of sweet perversion. I think there’s something queer in the ability to laugh in the face of something vulgar.
MH: You mentioned trauma in terms of how you view domestic detritus of certain periods. Does your practice help you exorcise it, express it in the work, or do your feelings simply compel you to use these materials? I ask knowing that it might be a mixture of these things, or something else entirely.
JY: I think it’s the third one. What I mean is that my intention is to simply respond to a material or object by thinking about memory and loss. This thinking occurs mainly with the early part of my studio process when I’m hunting and selecting materials for the work. I choose material through a visceral process rather than a rational one – these choices are almost always emotional. Once the materials are in my studio, though, the process takes a turn toward the more formal – I pick from the pile to arrange and rearrange and repeat until I’m content with it. The collage work happens in a more deliberate way, but that same process of selection and arrangement is still present.
MH: In spite of your mention of trauma, I see a lot of goofiness and joy in your work. Do you think it’s related to the process of play you talk about having in your studio?
JY: Definitely. That disparity between content and process or form is the thing that I’m most interested in both my studio and in the work of other artists. But play is important to me mainly because it makes time spent in the studio more exciting. I can’t see myself making work any other way. I heard or read someone say something like if a piece of art looks like it was a drag to make than it’s probably a drag to look at. That might be totally wrong, but I think I’m close. I wish I could remember who said that.