one woman's trash

Kennedy Yanko’s Sculptures Are a Certain Kind of Woman

Published October 6, 2020

Photo by Mike Vitelli.

“The first time I sat down to meditate, I died,” the Brooklyn-based artist Kennedy Yanko says. “I’ve always been a little tapped in.” This is in the context of Yanko’s interest in the Surrealist practice of automatism, which involves suppressing one’s conscious mind, allowing the subconscious control over the artistic process. While Yanko’s tools of psychic excavation differ from those of Dalí, Miró, and company—who often used psychedelics, sleep deprivation, and sometimes starvation—emotional intuition nevertheless constitutes a key aspect of her artistic practice. Melding together paint skins (sheets of dried paint) and found metals into layered abstract forms, Yanko’s sculptures come about as raw expressions of her inner life. The artist’s recent works, on view in two exhibitions, “Because it’s in my blood” at Gallery Poggiali in Milan and “Salient Queens”, opening October 10th at Vielmetter in Los Angeles, respectively pay tribute to the funk icon Betty Davis and the influential women who Yanko says have taught her “how to take up space.” 

The sculptures in both shows reflect the intense physical nature of the artist’s practice. Upon first moving to New York, Yanko worked as a performer with The Living Theater, taught yoga on the side, and trained as a bodybuilder in her spare time. Today, sculpture provides Yanko another outlet for her physical energy; her arduous process includes pulling scrap metal by hand from junkyards, bending, cutting, and welding it into various forms. Yanko’s sculptures bear the marks of this labor, imbued with a kind of kinetic energy—the look of things recently in motion, or about to be. Jagged metal pieces twist up from pedestals and along walls. Smooth paint skins wrap around them like supple flesh, or spill forth like sumptuous fabric. Some works even appear vaguely anthropomorphic, as Yanko describes: “sensual” and “femme.”

Interview called up Yanko to talk about unlocking her subconscious, sifting through metal yards, and honoring the women who have inspired her through sculpture. 

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ELLA HUZENIS: Your show in Milan is inspired by the music and biography of Betty Davis. Tell me about your connection with Davis.

KENNEDY YANKO: I didn’t really know about Betty before [making the works]. I was recently introduced to her. I had made the show fairly quickly. When I’m working with copper, I can really use my hands because it’s a pretty malleable material. So I had a lot of time with this work before I left for Italy and the work was prettier than [my work] normally. And there is a part of me that felt a little funny about that.

I was spending time in the studio with it and I would look around the room and I felt like I was hanging out with my friends. My friends are typically pretty femme and very sensual. It’s a very particular kind of woman, I guess you could say. Like a turn-of-the-century courtesan. They have this lady-ness. There was this clear knowing-ness to this woman, and I just couldn’t get over that.

I was looking for something to ground these pieces. I saw the They Say I’m Different documentary about Betty Davis, and I became obsessed with her because she was that. Betty was this sexual, raw, provocative true artist making funk music. She just became the iconoclast that grounded the works. I really fell in love with her story, and I also fell in love with the need to let that beast out and listen to the music she was singing. That’s what I was listening to all summer. That was just the collective energy that was surrounding me. It was just a release, in a way. The thing about a black woman to be presenting and to be sharing herself in the way that Betty did at that time in the world was really significant, and it was that she wasn’t doing it on purpose or to be provocative. She was truly herself. She wasn’t presenting, and so much about being Black in America in the early ’60s was about presentation: “We’re coming into the workforce, we are going to present ourselves as equal to white people and talk like white people and assimilate in that way and prove that we’re equal.” 

[In the show,] I talk about the tragedy of censorship and the loss of the individual and the loss of the collective because of an inability to see beyond the things that we know that are familiar to us. Just this idea of vision being something of a total experience, or a closed circuit thinking that our eyes and our minds do together [as] they talk to each other…If we’re not aware of it, then we’re in trouble. [With] so many of the issues that we’re dealing with today, part of [the problem] is that people can’t see beyond themselves and what they’ve known.

And I also talk a little bit about this practice called “automatism.” Automatism was something that the Surrealists would use: different physical austerities like taking drugs, sleep deprivation, food deprivation, just different methods to tap into the subconscious. What I feel in Betty’s work and her sound and her voice is that it’s coming from a very interior place. And in my work and the way that I’m making it, I’m listening, and I’m looking for the signals of something that’s coming from a subconscious place. Each of the pieces are named after things within her experience and my experience and what I recognized in her as significant moments in her life. My favorite piece is called “Crow.” Crow has this really monumental, ephemeral light and space to it. Crow was Betty’s spirit guide, and she talks about Crow [in the documentary] when she leaves New York and she goes to Japan and she’s moving on in her journey in her life. I feel very connected [to her] in that way—of having my own higher power, my spirit, and those that I speak to and guide me. 

Crow, 2020, paint skin and copper. Courtesy of Galleria Poggiali, Milan.

HUZENIS: Going off this idea of “automatism,” do you find there are tools or strategies you use in your own practice to tap into your “subconscious,” or access a more interior place in yourself?

YANKO: The first time I sat down to meditate, I died. I’ve just always been tapped in a little bit. The first time I did psychedelics I was like, “Oh hey cool, this is what I’ve been thinking anyway. Great.” I’m constantly examining and reexamining what I think, how I relate to the world around me, just engaging with different things and being open and not having a super concrete value system.

And the way that I’m talking about this material, about metal and copper—I’m really interested in its atomic quality. I get pulled into conversations about the industry processing of it or being a woman working with a man’s material and my approach is so different because…intentionally I’m thinking of it as something from nature. I’m thinking of it as this responsive material… I’m using machines to [melt it and] grind it. So it’s soft to me, and my approach is an approach that’s responsive. So I’m immediately contextualizing [the material] in a different way than what I think is someone’s immediate association with it.

HUZENIS: You have a background in performance. You’ve also worked as a personal trainer, and you’ve trained as a bodybuilder. Has the physical discipline you’ve learned through these fields shaped the way you approach sculpture?

YANKO: Totally, absolutely. When I was 15, I was studying Qigong and Tai Chi with my teacher, with my Sifu. And then I came to New York and I was working as a yoga teacher and as a trainer and I did bodybuilding. Bodybuilding was actually really crazy. It was probably one of the most intense understandings of the deliberation that comes with discipline, and some of the strongest physical austerities that I had dealt with. I really had to understand that my mind is what’s doing everything in all of these things. It’s all been very informative to me, being a psycho person who can’t sit still. I have to put my energy somewhere.

HUZENIS: Tell me about the sculptures in Salient Queens, and the women in your life who inspired these works.

YANKO: I was really thinking about the women who have shown me how to take up space. I was interested in capturing each of these women’s essences; they’re all nonrepresentational portraiture—I’m thinking about capturing a feeling of a person. Think about if I were to look at your aura, if I were to look at how you feel to me, what you seem like to me, how your story translates visually to me in an abstract way. That’s how each of these pieces are speaking. 

One is named after my aunt Gussie, who died at 101-years-old. She would always bite me on the cheek. Out of nowhere, she would just say wild shit like, “Don’t worry what they think, go on and let your firecracker pop.” She wasn’t a spiritual person. She was a weird old lady, but sometimes it was almost like she was channeling exactly what I needed to hear.

Judith, 2020, paint skin and metal. Photos by Martin Parkesian. Courtesy of Vielmetter, Los Angeles.

The big red piece that hangs out with the pink paint skin is called Judith. That was named after Judith Malina, who was the director that I was with at The Living Theatre when I went to go work with them. I lived with her at a time in my life where I dropped out of school and wasn’t interested in performance at all. I didn’t care about that, I wanted to be in New York, and this collective became a place where I could live. But if you live at The Living Theatre, you have to work. Judith was someone who really showed me what it looks like be a living artist, to be a working artist. She showed me that to make art is to build your community, and she did that without saying it. I watched her live, and it showed me how powerful it could be.

HUZENIS: How did you begin working with the materials you use in the two shows you have up right now, found metals and paint skins?

YANKO: In 2009, I did a show where I was painting on canvas and I was pouring onto the canvasses and the day I did the opening of that show, I was like, “Oh my God, I need to take paint off the canvasses.” Then in 2010, I did a show with just paint skins by themselves, using paint as a sculptural material. Then I started working on rubber, where I would throw the paint in the air and it would atom bomb on the rubber and I would take my body underneath it and create that shape and then I’d install it on the wall and paint it and work it. I worked like that for about seven years.

Photo by Mike Vitelli.

And then I was depressed and bored and tired of looking at that shit. There was a welding factory next door to me in my studio in Bushwick, and I walked in there and was like, “Hey guys, could I apprentice with you?” I wasn’t even thinking about working, I just literally wanted to do something different. And they’re like, “Yeah sure, come through.” So I started working with them a couple of times a week for a few months. I was working with sheet metal. I was learning how to cut, how to weld, how to bend, how to just understand that material. 

I did a residency in Miami at Fountainhead, and before I went there, I made a really clear decision to only work with found metal, and to bring my paint skins back.  Because I had been working on rubber for the last seven years, the paint skins had a different, visceral nature when it was the paint by itself. It was such a pivotal moment for me in my work, the skeleton that I had been looking for for such a long time. 

HUZENIS: What is the experience of going to these metal yards and collecting your materials like for you?

YANKO: It’s really crazy. So they’re usually a 30 foot-tall pile of metal. There’s guys throwing metal out the back of the cars into the pile. Then there’s this big magnet that picks the metal up and swings it up, onto the pile. It’s pretty dangerous and there’s just a lot going on. So I have to be very clear about what I’m doing. It’s really turned into a treasure hunt. The level of adrenaline that goes through your body when you’re working like that is really fun. Thank god I haven’t lost a limb yet.