Encounters With the Unknown
Returning to new York's galleries in search of surprise.
By Barry Schwabsky
May 19, 2021
Another sculptor who does unexpected things with materials is Kennedy Yanko, an American born in St. Louis in 1988 and now living in Brooklyn. But her inventiveness may not be apparent at first glance—although it took only a couple of images of Yanko’s work, posted on Instagram by an acquaintance (with no commentary, just the name of the artist and gallery), to make me head over to her exhibition “Postcapitalist Desire,” at the Tilton Gallery on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The six works in the show are assemblages, mostly wall-mounted rather than freestanding, featuring salvaged and reworked scrap metal—twisted, crushed, and crumpled forms that might remind you of, for instance, the sculptures made of smashed car parts for which John Chamberlain became famous in the 1960s, or of the found-object assemblages of John Outterbridge, the remarkable and still underknown Los Angeles–based African American artist, who passed away last year. “In castoffs there are profound treasures,” said Outterbridge, who also exhibited at the Tilton Gallery—and he proved it.
Yanko, too, has an eye for the hidden potential of what others have discarded. For her, this potential seems to lie mainly in abstraction, in the physical qualities of the materials she uses rather than in allusions to those materials’ past lives in the utilitarian realm. While someone more familiar with the affordances of scrapyards may be better able to divine what functions Yanko’s painted metal finds once may have had, I’m mostly at a loss—the one exception being the work titled The Politics of Wholeness (2021), where even I can make out that these used to be storage drawers, thanks to the telltale label holders. More to the point, though, is the utter transformation the metal has undergone at the artist’s hands: Liberated from the rectilinear geometry that once defined it, and even from the sense of implacable obduracy that’s unavoidable with a piece of steel office furniture, it’s become something like a dynamic cloud of dusty, rusty turquoise floating across the wall. Its literal hardness has been made to convey something paradoxically fluid and almost intangible, yet without disguising what the material really is.
Other pieces leave me wondering: What, for instance, was the original use of that metal perforated with small holes in Released from the wire and Making Light (both 2020)—assuming (which maybe I shouldn’t) that Yanko herself did not add them? But more often, the material just seems so generically “scrap metal” that I don’t think about its previous identity. I accept its present sculptural form as a given but—with that title Making Light in mind, perhaps—remain amazed that these complexly involuted or billowing forms bespeak such effortless plasticity. And then there’s Yanko’s very precise eye for color: Shades such as the butterscotch yellow of Making Light, or the hue somewhere, I think, between teal and ruddy blue in Pleasure Page (2021), feel very deliberate, carefully seen, not merely found and serviceable.
As my reference to Chamberlain implies, Yanko’s use of scrap metal represents a personal take on a familiar formal idiom. But metal is not the only material she’s used in these pieces. In all of them, the metal is in dialogue with something else I couldn’t identify at first. I wondered if it was PVC; anyway, it takes the form of a thick, dense fabric-like substance, scrunched up or hanging freely. Physically it is evidently more pliable, more amenable to the sculptor’s manipulations. Also notable is the opacity of its coloring—not a surface layer, like paint on metal (or for that matter, the glaze on a piece of ceramic), the color of this stuff appears to be tantamount to its substance: color all the way through. Well, no wonder. These turn out to be paint skins, that is, paint that Yanko has poured onto a horizontal surface to set, then worked with before it had completely dried. (But what kind of paint? We are not told.) No wonder I could not identify it—for isn’t the office of paint to represent anything at all (flesh, air, water, light, objects) as much as itself? Paint, I almost want to say, has something in common with what Keats called the poetical character, namely that “it is not itself—it has no self—it is every thing and nothing—It has no character—it enjoys light and shade.” Yanko shows paint as nothing but itself but in doing so displays it precisely in its anonymity, its neutrality, what Keats would have called its negative capability.
In most of the pieces, the metal and the paint skins are of similar but not identical hues, as if maintaining a close dialogue in which they can’t quite agree. So if the yellow metal of Making Light is, as it seems to me, butterscotch, the paint skin that’s pressed back to the wall behind its roughly triangular configuration is more like goldenrod; the blue metal of Pleasure Page is hardly dark, but the paint skin is distinctly lighter—almost powder blue. Only in a couple of cases is the chromatic difference between the two materials more emphatic. In Spilling Legacy (2021) a paint skin whose brownish orange might not be so far from the shade of the metal in Making Light pours down as if from a ewer from a metal bunching of mottled black and carmine.
Using metal in a painterly way as much as she uses paint sculpturally, Yanko plays with paradox in a marvelously relaxed way, without making a big issue of it or playing a by-now overfamiliar guessing game about the blurred boundaries between the two modes of art-making (this work may be painterly but it is emphatically sculpture). In three of the six pieces, she also introduces an element of drawing by using painted wire. In Pleasure Page and Released from the wire, the colored cords pretend to hold the sculptures in place, as though they might otherwise float away.
Well, floating away is what I felt like after spending time with these sculptures. Like Vidales’s paintings and Yasunaga’s not-so-ceramic ceramics, they reintroduced me to the joy of seeing new and unanticipated beauty—the thing that got me hooked on art in the first place. In that sense, these exhibitions that took me to strange places had also welcomed me home.