Originally from Detroit, artist Jason Yates has been living in Los Angeles for nearly 20 years, with stints in places such as New Mexico and Arizona as well. He came out here to earn his MFA at Pasadena's Art Center College of Design, studying under the likes of Mike Kelley, Mayo Thompson, and Liz Larner. Since completing the program in 2000, Yates has forged a successful career as an artist (though he's loathe to call it a "career"), yet watching L.A.'s increasingly commercial art scene has given him a different perspective, one that he explores in his art. "I have a love/hate relationship with this town," says Yates. "There's times when I feel absolutely suffocated by it and there's times when I feel completely inspired by it. I'm going through a period now where I'm feeling suffocated by it."
Recently on view at c.nichols project, Yates' "did i stutter did i ever" was a colorful examination of virtue and vice, success and failure, and the vicious cycle of self-doubt that plagues artists who are not necessarily hell bent on achieving financial success, yet who still want to remain true to their own creative vision.
Yates' show was composed of three separate works that function on their own, as a triptych, and even perhaps even as one work of art. "I usually work on one piece at a time, but this group of work, I was rotating between three of these, so something specific happened," Yates says.
All three tell a story, beginning with a piece that began as a commission and somehow found itself into the exhibition instead. "Why Sleep... When we're having so much fun," it reads in shiny metallic letters. Next is a piece with the phrase "Friends Forever" and "This is going to be our little secret," featuring a table with a mirrored tray of glittering mock-cocaine, rolled-up foreign currency, and crushed-out cigarette butts, alluding to the tacit shame that sometimes accompanies social drug use. Finally, a third work reads, "Nobody cares... Maybe partying will help (again)," thus ending -- and once again beginning -- the same cycle of misadventure all over again.
Not installations, collages, assemblages, sculptures, or paintings, the group of works somehow manage to exist as all of the above. For lack of a better term, Yates simply refers to them as "works on canvas," but whatever they're called, they sustain attention and engage the viewer much more than your average 2-D object. Each mixed-media artwork features a multitude of elements such as different fabrics, whimsical patches, odd stickers, and hand-drawn art that Yates may or may not have re-appropriated. Together, the seemingly disparate components form a type of visual narrative that tells a darker story in a way that's cute and fun, at least on the surface.
Yates' intentional misappropriation of "cuteness" comes from one of the conversations he used to have with the late Mike Kelley, himself known for incorporating stuffed animals into his own art practice. He says Kelley believed stuffed animals were always cute, but Yates found himself believing otherwise. "I don't have a problem with the cuteness of a particular object," he explains, "But if I can bend its meaning, if I can subvert its cuteness to open up to a larger critique, commentary, or conversation, I'm going to attempt it. Cuteness is often a tool for manipulation. That's when it becomes more interesting to me: when 'cuteness' is a weapon."
The artist says he hasn't had this much fun making art in years. Still, he acknowledges that working on the exhibition helped him work through his own issues, among them, the increasingly disenfranchised role of the artist in the face of creative entrepreneurship. In many ways, his show is about the death of the artist and the notion that in today's art world, people are dangerously close to valuing success over ideas.
"There's been a great deal of talk about the 'creative entrepreneur' of late," Yates says. "There doesn't seem to be much room for error in this business model. When an artist makes a mistake, that's really exciting to me. I want error. I want to see the 'good' work and the 'bad' work. The creative entrepreneur is about business, about having a career, selling a product, a lifestyle -- preferably both together -- throwing great parties and hash-tagging the shit out of everything."
To Yates, the change is especially palpable in Los Angeles, where he feels the art scene was more interesting before the importance of the commercial aspect of it came into the fray. "The galleries that are now huge powerhouses were just more charming," he says. "Blum & Poe was more charming when they had their shitty little space in Santa Monica, you know?"
With a show coming up in France this Fall, Yates is thinking of taking his family and moving there for the summer, where he can work on his art instead of making it here and then shipping it abroad. But if the past is any indication, he'll be back in Los Angeles, and maybe that's not so bad.
"Ever since I came here, LA -- the community -- wanted to be recognized as an internationally relevant place to be. The problem is, they always were. They always have been," he says. "But it's exciting for younger artists to be here and there's a lot to do... That's a good thing."