In the Studio with Joseph Yaeger.

Words by

James Ambrose

In the Studio with Joseph Yaeger.

Your first physical show with Project Native Informant is due to open in June, can you talk about the concept of the show and around some of the works you have produced for it specifically in the last two months?

Sure thing––I mean given that we're doing this interview in the lead-up it's no surprise that some of the show's concerns have been voiced in these answers. The title is Doublespeak. I've been considering recently how this word or concept, while valid, is itself (and paradoxically) a tautology. Everything is (and isn't) doublespeak––like yeah maybe 'passed on' is a euphemism, but really so is death, etc. I think most of my work is, in a broad sense, either indirectly about or communing with interiority––specifically mine. And thinking about how language no matter how eloquently arranged naturally fails to express the complexity of this interior. That frustration, which necessitates doublespeak. As a physical metaphor, I began to think about glass, and its own distorting qualities. Like language, glass can be transparent and reflective at once, conceal while revealing, it can distort, it can mirror, and then considering what happens in one's mind when encountering these distortions. We recognise faces and bodies in funhouse mirrors, for instance, meaning we sort of effortlessly undo the warping. Order asserts itself––it has to, otherwise it'd be no fun. For me this is not so unlike assigning language to an interior feeling. Language doesn't encapsulate or really even begin to describe the goings-on within, but it does communicate. This seems aspirational, or hopeful. So I've made four large-scale paintings in which glass as a distorting or reflecting agent is depicted, or the subject if you like, and the plan for now is to use those bigger paintings as 'anchors' for smaller supplementary works. Additionally, there will be a text, the format of which we're thinking about right now, that will accompany the show in some form of edition. I like this quote I heard recently about the act of writing a book, that it is a 'machine that responds to itself'––I think that's a fairly elegant way of describing how I've approached the work for this show.

Can you tell me a little about your upbringing in Montana? How did you end up leaving your life there and end up studying at the RCA in London?  

My upbringing was in almost every sense conventional, traditional––church every Sunday, nightly dinners around the table, politeness-as-armour. Basketball in the driveway, a golden retriever named Scout. Luckily my parents were open-minded and encouraging. My mother was a schoolteacher (patient, calm and open) and my father was and is a sort of restless antiquarian autodidact. I spent every autumn from age twelve in the field hunting birds with him (we carved our own duck decoys, canoed, wore wool and used traditional side-by-side shotguns) discussing literature and cinema and hearing stories of his very early years on the ranch. Being sort of implicitly taught, if that's a thing, to avoid at all cost repeating his, as it were, missteps––meaning, as I took it, begrudgingly attending business school under the thumb of societal duty, real or perceived. (My brother and I laugh that most evenings after work he'd come in and tell the family that he'd quit his job and was going to become a trapper, which is sort of funny in itself, but more so in that I think this may have been an actual desire.) That was how it was until the age of 18, when I met my wife, who, though from the same town, was vastly more well-travelled and ambitious and visionary, namely in that she had one for her future. After a dismal first semester of film school at MSU Bozeman, overtaken with really hopeless depression, she and her mother suggested I apply to RISD, which, as it happens, was a forty-five minute bus ride from Boston, where she was attending Emerson for costume design. I didn't know what RISD was, nor had I ever considered leaving Montana, but to my surprise I was accepted. This in most senses divided my life. It sounds silly but it was the first time I'd actually felt worthy (I was a mediocre and uninspired student). I went to the east coast where, so to speak, I became myself. Or a fledgling version. After graduation I moved to LA for a couple of years, then London––following my wife both times, if I'm to be honest. Those were personally happy but professionally/vocationally lost years. Almost a decade, in fact. By 2017 I had been working at a cheese shop and moonlighting as a writer/painter for almost seven years and had become deeply familiarised to the quote adult world unquote. I had basically just had it. I felt all of my edges were sanded down. It was, looking back, a logical conclusion to the futurelessness I'd experienced growing up, the passivity, and so in an act of near-desperation I applied to the Royal College. I remember when I got the acceptance letter I was on break at work, sitting at the computer beside a sink in a basement under harsh fluorescents, smelling wafts of the used cheese aprons from the laundry bin. I read 'congratulations' and overflowed with so much joy that I squeezed Julio, the manager, around the head and kissed him, then in a daze just sort of wandered outside and stood in the sun. A very memorable day.

Joseph Yaeger, Chartreuse, 2020, Watercolour on gessoed canvas 130 x 160 x 4 cm

When we first met we talked a lot about writing and its importance to both of us, you used to write a lot more than paint is that correct?

Indeed both writing and reading were and are very important. And yes for a while the writing was primary. Coinciding with my move to London was an avowal to never make visual art again. This was 2010, I was twenty-four––so still a bit black-and-white in my thinking. Bold pronouncements, strict borders, not much followthrough. I'd graduated from RISD in illustration in 2008 and felt so free––illustration was in every sense not for me––so spent two years exploring everything I'd not had the time to explore under the strictures of the illustration coursework. In late 2010 I hit a wall and decided what I REALLY ought to do was write. Fuck art. So for like four or five years that was all I did. Wrote short stories and part of a novel and read. I read a great deal, playing catch-up, it felt like. In retrospect I think it frustrated or worried those close to me, my disavowal. But it was so so good. Unfortunately after many rejection letters I discovered that while the writing practice in a personal sense was exceptional, I really wasn't, so I was grateful when painting reemerged into my life. Very different than before. As if a different person were painting. Quite lucky really.

You say in 2010 you turned your back on art as such. After you realised that painting did have a place in your future, I am wondering if you can recall that specific moment when you decided to pick up a paintbrush again and what it meant to you?

It's tricky, this, because although all the elements of your question in some sense happened, the chronology is less straightforward. Or the intentionality or something. For instance I wouldn't say I realised painting had a place in my future until a couple of years into what I can now look back and define as a burgeoning project or body of work. It was more compulsive and mindless. Notwithstanding I can vividly recall making that first painting after my sabbatical or whatever. It was 2012 and I had––for reasons that today elude me––been thinking about writing a story involving Charlie Chaplin, something perhaps between Rebecca Lee's "Fialta" and Don Delillo's "Pafko at the Wall" when I stumbled across Chaplin's late home movies from his home in Switzerland. This was before I had formalised my approach or whatever, so I just patiently watched them. The film stock was crisp and well-lit and 16mm-warm and produced in me a feeling. Nothing more. (I get a similar feeling looking at photos of my hometown from the early 20th century––some blend of sorrow and yearning and entrapment. Physiologically the experience is esophagal––as if I were about to speak and can't utter the word.) Anyway I watched them and I felt this thing and it interested me. So I went back into the video and decided––years later I read Camera Lucida and was touched that someone else felt equally affected by images––to seek the visceral zenith or punctum of the movies. For me it was this panning shot of Chaplin's daughter on a horse. I paused and un-paused and paused etc trying to isolate the exact moment, then, once reached, I screenshotted. How or why I had both watercolours or paper also now eludes me, but can I see the painting is on Arches, so it must have been leftover from LA when I still used that brand. I painted it in an afternoon and felt almost nothing, barring some moments in which some bleed of pigment or intensity of colour were felt fleetingly and non-intellectually. I was, however, satisfied with the result, I remember. I liked that I had made that thing––it felt, although all of my internal energy was being used for writing, like keeping the some small ember of a fire alive, disbelieving but perhaps acknowledging that fire ought to be a future option.

The he spies on the I, 2020, Watercolour on gessoed canvas, 130 × 200 × 4 cm

You predominantly employ watercolours in your work. Can you expand a little on the importance of this paint to your practice? And your journey with the medium.

Yes, watercolours exclusively since the painting reemerged from the writing. However for the past few years I would say of equal importance to the watercolours is the surface upon which they're painted. From about 2014 - 2018 I was working on paper, painting these rather polite 'transcriptions' from strangers' home movies that I'd screenshot from YouTube. My thinking over this time was of the fragility of memory, the way that assigning too much language or remembrance in some sense changes the raw material of the recollection, just as watercolour overworked on paper becomes muddy and greyed. This reached its eventual terminus in that I began to disagree with the basic meanings I'd assigned. Paper, as a material, actually stores or holds the memory, in a manner of speaking. The paper doesn't forget, but humans do. I couldn't work my way out of this corner, so it was serendipitous when one day I'd run out of paper and happened to have a canvas lying around (I'd been gluing paper to the canvases as a hanging implement). Impatient and sort of on a lark I decided to try foregoing the paper altogether and painted directly on the gesso. To start with this was really challenging, because whilst I'd been expecting the watercolour to behave like fresco or something, really what it did was float on top of the gesso, and bead, making layering or slow-painting almost impossible. And the image could be eliminated back to nothingness with almost no effort––appeared to want to, in fact. This (for lack of a better term) 'innovation' was probably the first time I'd meaningfully conversed with watercolour, or questioned what it was. Everything changed. I began to understand that painting in this manner is for the most part 'un-painting,' removal. The native transparency of the medium began not only to emphasise absence, it was in fact defined by it. It was as if I'd been stuck in the oppressive rigidity of a city, the preordained logic of the map, and was suddenly transplanted into wilderness. No parameters and just this expanse to inwardly explore. After decades of practice my father is something of a master carver, and something he always says to people beginning to carve is, 'the wood will teach you.' It sounds very Jedi-new-agey but I find this really relatable to my experience with watercolour on gesso.

You touched briefly up screenshots you took from YouTube as inspiration for the images in those earlier works. Can you expand a little on the source material you employ in your practice and how its collection and use has evolved?

The source material really varies a great deal. Anything from a mediated source is fair game, but over time the parameters change, goal-posts moving to fit whatever I'm presently working on. For instance when I was still in my MA, after the strict home-movie-YouTube thing imploded after the first year, I had this epiphany that anything could reasonably be source material. It sounds so simple, and likewise was then, I suppose, nevertheless it was revelatory and produced a huge amount of inward inertia. It was so liberating to have been painting these archetypical American mid-century tableaux and to then suddenly say fuck it, I'm going to paint a Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder bottle from a Times article, or a cropped photo of a pack of tobacco, or a 'ghost' from a conspiracy website; there was, suddenly, a kind of mania to the pursuit. And this aspect I stand somewhat behind. From this outset it pretty rapidly became a project of prismatic and fractured self-portraiture––an attempt to capture the impulsive and hungry mind/eye that exists in a world of previously unimaginable and continuous mediation. Then of course the borderlessness became its own sort of minefield. Much in the same way overexposure to pornography leads to greater and greater depravity in order to produce the same level of arousal, I began deliberately seeking left-field or weird or out-of-the-way imagery, which was a trap because it pointed towards nothing. I've come to learn it's really just an issue of keeping the horse before the cart, and what this means is, yes, let intuition guide, collect the images from wherever you encounter them, but also keep up your antennae for that feeling of a fulcrum or a 'sun', when the weight begins to shift and/or things begin to orbit. It's astonishing what, if you're listening, your collected choices will tell you––what they indicate and where the arrow is pointed. Lately I'll do the random collecting thing until a handful of the paintings seem to cohere, and from there begin to seek more deliberately imagery within the bounds that those paintings determined––the machine, in other words, responding to itself.

Joseph Yaeger, I have hardly anything in common with myself, 2020 Watercolour on gessoed canvas, 66 x 51 x 4 cm
Now that you have found painting again, what is it about painting that you love?

It's funny my knee-jerk is to say I don't and leave it there because it's simpler than an answer riddled with equivocations and vulnerability.

I suppose if I were to talk about the act of painting itself I really really like the feeling of non-existing. When painting is going well it's genuinely as if my entire consciousness were mystically reassigned into the image emerging as if through a haze of time, meeting me halfway from its own inevitable completion, and I don't need to 'think' about what to do next or where to go in the composition because that thinking is happening elsewhere, radically, as well as through the tip of the brush, which becomes sensitive enough to somehow discern like a microgram too much of, say, burnt sienna lifted incidentally up on the way over to cerulean blue. This is difficult to describe because when it's happening I'm not exactly there to experience it; a level of concentration so thoroughly eclipsing that any and all self-awareness or -consciousness is blocked, zero corona. In short and in the least corny or hijacked-by-the-imbecilic-far-right way I suppose I would say I love that freedom. Freedom from the trap of the self, from thought, memory, existence. That's good.

Per painting itself I love in a poetic or literary sense something elegantly described. Visual intelligence or ingenuity, you might say. This could be particularly adept and/or economic brushwork, material usage, perspective, approach, even style (though rare).

I suppose I love that painting necessarily describes a hidden interior. In this way I find it definitionally impossible to dislike someone's work if I truly like them, because it is a window into an even deeper aspect of their being. A handful of people for whom I care very deeply make work that when I first encountered it totally repelled me, but as I came to know them better I could feel almost physically my empathy-machine getting pried open, and that reveal––once I was seeing their work from approximately within their perspective––moved me on almost a cellular level. It changed how I looked at all paintings, not just theirs.

I love that painting has a long enough lineage that if we're talking from like Alberti's window to now or whatever it can seemingly be anything. For a lot of folks I think this is alienating or limiting––the weight of history––but for me it's freeing. It's like Parmigiano-Reggiano––if it's your thing you can talk about the geography of Emilia-Romagna and whether it's produced from the milk of red cattle and remember that the number on the wheel correlates to specific producer and the lower the number the higher the quality (generally) and that it's unusual in that it's made from skimmed milk and has zero lactose from like 18 months of age and buy implements to open the 38kg wheels and learn those processes and train yourself on what to listen for when the affineur hammers it and recall that the salt granules in aged varieties contain the amino acid tyrosine and on and on and on, but also: it's fucking delicious on pasta.

Are there any other specific artists you look up to or draw inspiration from?

Two who come first to mind are W. G. Sebald and Joanna Newsom, specifically because both sensed life in presumed-dead or obsolete forms (Sebald with the 19th-century prose sentence, Newsom with the harp), and in resurrecting each expanded their contemporary bounds.

After the show at Project Native Informant what are your plans for the rest of 2021?

I’ll be putting together a solo fair presentation with Project Native Informant, so a fairly symmetrical 2021 all in all.

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Photos by Alex Zono