Interview: Jason Yates
Interviewed October 26, 2012 and early October 27
I currently cannot beat Jason Yates at arm wrestling. There’s no good reason -- I have a minimum of 100 pounds on him. We’re both the sons of carpenters, used to long summers of long days swinging hammers and lifting headers. Considering he’s from Detroit proper and I’m from a farm in Texas, we should be evenly matched rough handed meat-heads. It’s not even close though, and he says it’s all mental. “You can beat me,” he says, “You just don’t believe you can.”
Yates and I saw the wolf. Taking a mental health day, I journeyed to the beach community of Encinitas where he lives and works. I wanted to ask him about his current work at the new MJ Briggs / Anna Melikesetian Gallery. The conversation started instantly and went on for ten hours. Yates is not remotely shy and has no trouble airing it out to whoever wants to listen.
A case of beer was consumed, a bottle of Wild Turkey 101. The whole time, Yates played selections from his record collection -- Beethoven, the Traveling Wilbury’s, Talking Heads, and delightfully (on loan from his neighbor) Willies Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger. He woke up in his son’s bed. I woke up in his. Ten years of drawings covered the floor, and the apparently, once the wolf took me into a deep sleep, Yates’ current work called Visigoth, 2012, a large canvas hanging in his living room, had made some progress during the night.
I wrote about Yates several years ago for Art Review, London, having stumbled on his work in Circus Gallery. At the time, he struck me as an artist of interesting divisions, several revolving personalities all struggling for dominance.
“These are vibrant but confusing exercises,” I wrote at the time, “an aesthetic surely part of the atmosphere in an LA where urban planning collapses into rioting and the high theory often pitched in its many art schools can turn sinister and loud.” Yates called me shortly thereafter and said that I sounded enough like a son of a bitch that we should have a drink. We drank Greyhounds.
Now we are more inclined towards bourbon, and considering Yates recently had a show in Kentucky and Houston, a bit of the brown tastes just good enough. His show on Fairfax features a king sized bed and mirrors etched with a diamond tool alongside his more recognizable efforts, his monk tables and his vellum cross hatches. The monk tables and the bed look like my fantasy of what Donald Judd’s dungeon must look like, all firm angles tied with ropes. In a sense, it’s true, but in a more important sense, the show is much, much more.
What follows is a partial account of Yates’ and my discussion there in Encinitas. A little about Mike Kelley and a lot about family, we try to get to the bottom of Yates a bit.
Ed Schad: So the death hasn't happened yet? I read it as a trauma that has already happened.
JY: Well that's not as interesting. Personal trauma is not that interesting. Everybody is constantly doing that every second. We are all surrounded by death.
ES: What type of site of death is your bedroom?
JY: I don't know how to answer that other than I think that death will be delivered cold.
ES: Like Revenge in the Klingon proverb.
JY: The first day that I moved to Los Angeles, I died. I literally had to be revived. I OD'd. I was dead. I don't know if it is a mental construction or recuperation, but what I remember is that there is nothing there. It was black and cold and it was more drugs that brought me back.
ES: How did you show up in L.A. and have this happen?
JY: I was moving from Detroit. As it happened, I had friends that rented the place upstairs, a place upstairs, a shitty single in Silverlake back when you could rent a place like that for 400 bucks. I was well indoctrinated into the drug world. As a celebration, we were all living together in this building. Well . . . I didn't know what I was doing basically. The sun was starting to set and I'll never forget looking out these French doors with the light coming through, and it was beautiful. I looked at one of my “colleagues” as it were and said, “I think I took too much,” and I was out. I remember flashes, coming in and out of consciousness as they tried to revive me, but then I was gone. Apparently, I was dead for about 8 minutes.
ES: This was in the hospital?
JY: This was in the apartment.
ES: What were they doing to revive you?
JY: Beating the shit out of me, putting ice cubes in my ass, putting me in the shower. EMS showed up.
ES: That’s horrible. Why ice cubes?
JY: Supposedly it shocks your system. Then two EMS guys came and shot me with Narcan and I starting yelling at them. Then they took me to Glendale Memorial. More Narcan. More profanities. If there is anything interesting in it, death was this volley between coming in and out of light. You hear people talk about a tunnel of light. I can get with that. I saw that. Then, I saw intangible black. There's intangible light too, but that's it, and that's gonna be it, that's all anyone is going to be able to tell you in this life.
ES: So the show, the bedroom on Fairfax, is a place to die, it is a location to go to that place, to do that again?
JY: I don't want to put too fine a point on it. If you want to talk about death, you still can't talk about it in terms of black and white. The only place that black and white exists is in art.
JY: Because life has too many gradations.
ES: So art is a lie?
JY: I think we covered that. Yeah. Art is a lie.
ES: When I look at your work, I see all the things I am not supposed to see. I see Brice Marden. I see Jasper Johns. I see orifices. But the places that the work actually comes from seem to have little to do with what I am seeing.
JY: No, I'm not thinking about Marden or Johns or art at all. I am more interested in labor. I am more interested in being an worker ant. I’m not really thinking about anything.
ES: You are obviously a Mike Kelley fan, you seem to come, at least partially, out of the sunshine noir side of L.A.
JY: Everybody that had a relationship with Mike wants to say that it was special because he was an enigma and he is kind of intangible. He was on my thesis committee, along with Bruce Hainley, Mayo Thompson, Liz Larner, and Stephen Prina. I should have had Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe on it. If there were do-overs, I would have spent a lot more time taking his abuse. When it comes to addressing painting, I have never met anyone that is as much a purist about anything as Jeremy is about painting and that scares me. I am not a purist. I think I would like to tell you that I am, but I am not. I'm a garbage head.
ES: What does that mean?
JY: I would take the same approach to art as a green beret out in the field. I am going to use anything that I can get a purchase on. That's how I use history. I don't feel religious about anything that I come across. I use it all as a single word in a larger sentence. I don't feel religious about Jasper Johns.
ES: I don't think Jasper Johns feels religious about Jasper Johns.
JY: I hope not.
ES: Your work is dirty.
LY: Failure is dirty. If anything, I've discovered that if you strip back a layer of veneer, we are all pretty gnarly. I don't like secrets. I go out of my way very publically to strip away through those secrets.
ES: Is it a telling moment in your work when you lift the vellum and see a mirror?
JY: I actually think I fail as an artist, and as a person, when I try to get people to look in the mirror. It is not my job. Even though it's overly didactic, I still do it. I am willing to play to court jester. I want to grow as a human being. I have a huge ego, but it is important for me to strip it down.
ES: You’ve also mentioned Larry Johnson in connection with your practice before.
LY: I just remember Larry saying that he made art at his kitchen table, and hearing that helped me to develop a new method of surviving as an artist. It is more solvent for me to approach production in terms of my kitchen table. I had 3,000 square feet in Boyle Heights and at the end of the day, I am working on my bed. You can see how I am working right now. I have a studio on Oceanside, but I want to work right here in my living room. I've got all the accoutrements, but I don't use them. I want to be at home. Success in my head means to me that I can stay home. I also had a 3,000 square foot studio in Detroit, and I had fantasies about the 50s through the 80s type of big studio way of working. I was also romantic about art as a certain lifestyle.
ES: You wanted a John Chamberlain studio and an Andy Warhol life
JY: That's right.
ES: But Warhol doesn’t strike me as a very happy person.
JY: I have never detected any sort of happiness from Warhol, no emotion actually.
ES: Other than reverence. I think Warhol's greatest gift was his capacity for reverence. He was a man that knew how to worship.
JY: But reverence needs emotion to be intelligent.
ES: You seem to find that emotional intelligence in music. I know a big part of your history is with Fast Friends and Holy Shit.
JY: I think the work I did with Holy Shit is very important. Ariel is a genius, but he’s also one of those geniuses that work very hard. Matt Fishbeck has always been ahead of the curve in terms of fashion and what people are going to like in a few years. That work, those posters, is still a big part of me, that time, that scene. Of course, few cared at the time.
ES: You definitely have an affinity for the underground. You dig extremely deep. I'm from Texas and never heard of this psychedelic, hillbilly cowboy music till you showed me.
JY: The legendary stardust cowboy. Fucking amazing. This is what I will say about Texas psych – they got it better than anyone else. They processed it and put out the most timeless stuff that there is. Most people have heard of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, everyone has heard of Red Crayola, but Golden Dawn? They made one record and they basically summed up everything that was incredible about pop and psyche and they nailed it. There must have been something in the water in Austin.
ES: There is still something in water in Austin.
JY: There is still something in the water in Austin. Austin is an incredible town. Texas is not the United States. I can relate to Texas, it is a different kind of repression but still at the same intensity as the repression that Detroit has, it has a different kind of environmental repression. In Detroit, the weather is bleak and the economy there, since the riots, has been bleak. But you can argue that the most visible, weighty cultural figures have come out of Detroit.
ES: I wanted to ask that, Jim Shaw, Mike Kelley, Mo-Town.
JY: Madonna. George Clinton wasn't from Detroit but got his stride in Detroit. The MC5, Iggy Pop, most of the influential bands, it just keeps going. Even more contemporary like the White Stripes, they were a cultural and artistic force at one time (say what you will). Eminem. This country, when it’s at its best, holds the underdog in the highest regard because we are a nation of underdogs. Aside from the Native Americans, who are the ultimate underdogs, we are a people that couldn't hold status anywhere else.
ES; One part Tammany Hall and one part P.T. Barnham, and it’s always been that way.
JY: People were stupid enough to move to Detroit in the first place, it was Ford's fault. It was the lazy man's manifest destiny. We don't have to go to California for a coast, we have a coastline as long as California, but when you get there, it sucks. What are you doing to do? You are going to create your own world.
ES: What do your parents do?
ES: Summers with Dad, then full time with Dad, and full time with Dad is very hard.
JY: Full time with Dad sucks. You shouldn't have full time with Mom either. They are still together. My mom was the overachiever. She actually owns two art galleries, one in Scottsdale and one in Fountain Hills. My mom has a very intelligent heart. My dad was historically an academically brilliantly person but an underachiever.
ES: What did your dad read, what was he into?
JY: Basically anything that had to do with fringe alpha males.
ES: Who are fringe alpha males?
JY: Kit Carson. Geronimo. Custer was a grave disappointment to him. Lincoln is the only Democrat that my father will accept.
ES: And your family, pre-Detroit, were Southerners?
JY: My family goes generations deep in art and con art. We're from Kentucky. They are all con artists. I'm Scotch-Irish. I'm not Scottish, I'm not Irish. I am not even English. We ended up in Kentucky.
ES: You are the people that stopped in Virginia, ran into a gentleman on the street, and upon receiving a snub, pointed your nose west to Kentucky.
JY: And owned Kentucky. My family came over as surveyors for the crown and said the hell with you, we're staying. No one else would come over here. It wasn't a noble position. Who else would come? George Yates came here in the 1600s and never left. At one point, they owned Maryland.
ES: We're they Catholic?
JY: They were pagans.
ES: No way, they couldn't have been pagans. I don’t believe you.
JY: Okay, they were Protestants, they were proper Protestants. They owned a lot of slaves and then drank everything. The Yates at some point married into the Clark family in Canada. At one point, my great great grandfather was the bishop of Niagara. They were in that circle of Anglicans and Protestants. But ultimately, we made Detroit happen.
ES: Were you thinking about any of this in your Kentucky show?
JY: It was called Master and Servant. I could show you the last will and testament of my great great grandfather where he is bequeathing his slaves, guns and bibles to his relatives. This was the late 1700s. I walked around naively, ignorantly in Detroit saying, “I don't know what your problem is, my family never owned slave.” We didn't talk about that. I had to go through country records to find that out. It is a troubling thing to realize you have this history. We still don’t talk about it.
ES: Have things at least improved?
JY: Coming from somebody that still has an appreciation of street life. There is a notable difference between how races interact since Obama. On a superficial level, he's done more for this country than anyone else as a figurehead.
ES: Do you see this in Detroit? Do you go back to Detroit often?
JY: I love Detroit, I love being from there, and I love flying that flag, but I've been back three times since I left and I left in 1996. I did my time there. There are wonderful people there and wonderful talent, but by and large, they all leave. I'll never forget one night and I was driving down Woodward, two guys and two girls, we all lived in Detroit proper. A car full of six guys pulls up and we were stopped at the light. We were high and that's why we stopped, because if you are sober, you never stop for a red light there. These guys looked at us, looked at me, and one guy takes his 38 and taps it against the glass window. It's winter and his window is rolled up. I said, “Hey guys, look he has a gun” and we all started laughing. These guys were stone killers and they look at us and their eyes and mouths drop and they start laughing too. That's how you have to play Detroit, you have to at least appear to be fearless. So me living in Southern California, you can understand why you say that I am cheating. No one ever fucking leaves Detroit.