Carrie Yamaoka still isn’t exactly sure how to describe her category-defying art. Nearly three decades into her career, the Japanese American artist, who received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2019, has continued to produce work that blurs the boundaries between sculpture, photography, and painting.
“I’m not interested in the perfection of the perfectly glossy, polished surface,” she told ARTnews in a recent Zoom call from Paris, where she is installing an exhibition of work by the queer art collective fierce pussy opening this month at the Palais de Tokyo. “I’m more interested in that dynamic between the object and the viewer and what the viewer makes the object into through their encounter with it. Error and defect and traces and residue of perhaps mistakes are things that interest me.”
Since 1995, Yamaoka has been using materials like reflective mylar, vinyl, resin, and wood to create contemplative and reflective abstract works that intentionally play with light and shadow. Her long-time interest in these materials and processes — as well as the chemical reactions that take place over time and her rejection of perfection — are at the center of her current show at Commonwealth and Council gallery in Los Angeles, Objects in mirror are closer than they appear, which is on view through February. Several works will also be shown at the Frieze Los Angeles art fair this week.
The title of the show comes from the phrase found on the sideview mirrors of cars and trucks. Yamaoka said she is fascinated with how the “brain teaser” contradicts a viewer’s perception and the way it confers agency on those who interact with her work.
“They make the picture,” she said. “I’m only setting up the situation for them to constantly create a picture that is constantly changing that’s always fleeting, that they can never really hold on to.”
Yamaoka created over half the works in the show by rehinking and reworking earlier pieces that had been sitting in a “purgatory” area of her studio, which she treats like a lab. Often, she will transform a piece through destruction, reconfiguration, or other methods.
“Now it no longer fits into my protocol or my practice, because either it feels like it’s too blank, or feels like it’s a little too pristine,” she said the older piece. “Now I welcome accident, error, and defect way more wholeheartedly than, let’s say, twenty years ago, when I wanted all of that kind of emptied out and barely present in my work.”
Kibum Kim, a co-owner of the gallery, said Yamaoka’s living, ongoing approach to her previous work, some of it from the early 2000s, is especially compelling.
“The fact that the artist herself went back, and reworked some of these pieces felt like such like a poignant way of marking time to something that she has been doing for almost three decades,” he told ARTnews.
One of the reworked pieces, 68 by 32 (stripped), uses fragmented mylar to distort a viewer’s visual experience. Yamaoka said that she deliberately chose to thwart the viewer’s desire to be reflected. “Nothing you see represents where you are and who you are,” she said.
The ways in which Yamaoka’s work are interactive, reflective, and constantly changing are very different than the selfie-prompting spectacles associated with artists like Jeff Koons and Anish Kapoor. That Yamaoka started making these works in 1995, when the queer community was still grappling with the losses from the AIDS epidemic, is not a coincidence, said Kim.
“She wants to make artwork that inherently rejects image making, and words or language,” he explained. “The fact that they’re kind of ever changing, reflecting back to us what is happening now, there’s a real strong political edge there too.”
In fact, Yamaoka considers photographs of her work “a kind of a failure” because they only capture one particular moment in one particular site from one particular angle.
When Yamaoka was told that a piece of hers on display as part of MoMA PS1’s 2015 group show Greater New York was the most photographed work in the show, she was slightly horrified. It also prompted a change in her work.
“I want to make it a little more complicated for the viewer, rather than just to present a selfie opportunity,” Yamaoka said. “It’s a hard balance, actually, to achieve that. I feel like my work is adamantly involved with materiality and presence and actual formal concerns that have to do with process and concrete things in the world.”
In addition to her work at Commonwealth and Council and Frieze LA, Yamaoka also currently has a solo exhibit at the Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery at Wesleyan University, Seeing is forgetting and remembering and forgetting again, on view until March 5. She is also taking part in Exposed, an upcoming exhibition on what the AIDS epidemic did to artists at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris (February 17 – May 14) through a new chapter of the project arms ache avid aeon: Nancy Brooks Brody/ Joy Episalla/ Zoe Leonard/ Carrie Yamaoka: fierce pussy amplified.
It’s a lot of places to be in at once but Yamaoka said she decided six months ago to say yes more often and see what happens. At this point in her career, Yamaoka feels she has enough experience and confidence in her ability to keep discovering new things, even under additional pressure.
“Ultimately, what I love in the studio is to be surprised.”