It’s hard to appreciate Carrie Yamaoka’s work from photographs. Images that look like people are often reflections on a shiny surface; of the artist, the photographer, or whoever was in the room at the time. At first glance, her work appears two-dimensional: flat pieces hung on walls. In fact, Yamaoka’s art is three- or four-dimensional; time and the viewer’s physical relationship to the work are also in play, transforming the materials and how the viewer perceives them.
Yamaoka’s art is not so much about what you see, as how it happens. A career retrospective, Carrie Yamaoka: recto/verso is currently on view at the University of Washington’s Henry Art Gallery. Her thought-provoking work benefits from some knowledge of the artist and her methods.
Yamaoka was born in the U.S. but spent her teen years in Tokyo. She returned to the U.S. for college, graduating from Wesleyan University in 1979. Early in her career, she worked in photography and publishing; processes and artifacts from those fields continue to infiltrate her art. By the mid-1980s, she had abandoned paint, brushes and canvas for photographic processes and high-tech materials such as polyester film and resin. She chooses her materials for how they will react with each other and uses those reactions to create images. She employs processes in which the outcome is not completely in her control.
Yamaoka is fascinated with transformations, like the moment when exposed photo paper hits the developing chemical and an image starts to appear. Many of her artworks are about capturing that moment. For her Aluminum series (2007-2008), Yamaoka poured powdered pigment onto liquid urethane; the pigment continued to flow until the resin solidified, freezing the image at a moment determined by the material, not the artist. For 68 by 23 (small bubble #2) (2013) and several similar works, Yamaoka poured resin onto polyester film, letting the liquid bubble and crawl on the slippery surface.
Although an image formed as the resin set, the materials are not stable; even on the gallery walls they change with time.
While working in magazine publishing, Yamaoka became interested in typography and how different meanings can be found in the same text. She collected “records of error,” outtakes from the printing process, and used color to highlight or obscure words, drawing out new meanings. Nam. Home. Jersey City. Rome. (1991) is an autobiography of places that she lived, distilled from one random printed page. An entire gallery is devoted to her Banned series (1990-1993). Selecting text from books that were banned from libraries or from import into the U.S., Yamaoka visually emphasized words or lines that express the authors’ sense of oppression or otherness. She plays with palindromes, words whose letters, when reversed, spell different words. sore/eros (1992) succinctly expresses the pain and pleasure of love. ImaimMiami #2 (1992), sandblasted on a gold mirror, explores aspects of gay identity: Miami as a center of gay culture in the 1990s, and the feelings of ambiguity and danger in coming out.
Mirror images and reflections carry over into other areas of Yamaoka’s work. She uses shiny silver film as substrate for paint or resin; viewers may see themselves or others reflected in the work, depending on where they stand. Yamaoka describes her use of reflective materials as a way “to get the body into the work without depicting the body…Reflective material begs the question: what constitutes a picture?” To make 68 by 32 (lift-off) (2017), Yamaoka painted silver mylar, rolling and unrolling it while the paint was wet, to create an image. The viewer‘s reflection can become part of that image. For 90 by 7 + 30 by 11.25 (2004), a two-part piece, she applied resin to film, creating rippling surfaces that fracture reflections like a fun-house mirror. A person walking in front of the piece will see different parts of their body enter and leave the frames at different times.
Throughout her career, Yamaoka has pursued all these themes in ongoing bodies of work, sometimes weaving them together in the same work. Archipelagoes (1991-1994, 2019) brings together photographic processes, text and time. A series of photograms on paper, each is the name of a place where people are sequestered: prisons, concentration camps, hospitals. The names are displayed in alphabetical order, some clearly legible, some faint or obscured, with blank panels or gaps for as yet unused letters. For this show, Yamaoka made five new works using the names of detention centers: historic sites such as Tule Lake and active sites like Rio Grande.
Alongside her work as an individual artist, Yamaoka is well-known as a member of Fierce Pussy, a New York-based queer art collective. Formed in 1991 around AIDS activism and gay rights, the group used low-budget methods to get their message out: posters, stickers, and tee shirts; guerilla tactics like changing street signs to honor lesbian heroines. Today they disseminate images and video online; their prominence as individual artists has brought gallery shows and press coverage. While her work with Fierce Pussy is not on view in this show, there is an osmosis between Yamaoka’s own work and the work of the collective. Photographic techniques, text-based images and the effects of time are common to both. Posters left on building walls weather, becoming found artifacts in later life.
“Fierce Pussy gave me the opportunity to do that kind of [political] work” Yamaoka says, while “protecting my studio practice from the grief and loss of AIDS.” It freed her to pursue a variety of themes in her own art, to not be defined by her politics. But she acknowledges that “those walls are porous…Where I come from will manifest in the work.”
Carrie Yamaoka: recto/verso is on view at the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington through November 3. Writer and artist Ariel Goldberg will conduct a tour of the exhibition on October 26 at 2:00 PM. More information at 206-543-2280 or henryart.org.