Kennedy Yanko defies gender norms not only with her stylish unconventional platinum buzz cut, but by creating alluring sculptures with traditionally male-dominated mediums like rubber, metal, wood, and marble. The artist uses her background of painting to add colorful and metallic details to her “skins” (or pieces) that transform the feel of harsh, heavy, “masculine” mediums to an interpersonal relationship with Yanko’s technique and perception. Hailing from St. Louis, Yanko picked up her first paint brush at the age of four only to begin selling out studio’s worth of art by the inspiring age of 18. Most recently, Yanko was hand-selected by artist Mickalene Thomas and noted curated Racquel Chevremont for their Deux Femmes Noires debut, “The Aesthetics of Matter,” at the 2018 Volta Show, so if it wasn’t already clear, this artist is making waves.
Milk sat down with Yanko to talk more about being a woman of color in the art world, her upcoming events, and where she looks to for inspiration.
When did you begin to pursue art as a career? Tell us about your journey into the art world.
The first painting I did, I was four years old on the back of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle video game box. My parents framed the painting and seeing my work framed in the house amongst the other artists collected was influential for me. When I was 12 or 13, I made a studio in my parents house by the time I was 15 I was creating different series of work. I started going to restaurants and coffee shops in my hometown St Louis hustling putting shows together inviting my friends and their parents to come out and that was the beginning of it all. I tried to be professional about my work I made a website and created business cards because I really loved painting. When I was 18 I sold out my studio to a collector.
Wow! That must’ve been so exciting.
It was cool. It was a really nice initiative because it gave me the opportunity to purchase better materials and it was a nice boost for my ego before I went to art school.
Nice. What art school did you attend?
I went to the San Francisco Art Institute for a year and then I dropped out. While at school, I found it to be a very beautiful place. I fell in love with new genres and installation work so a lot more conceptual work was my introduction to an entirely new conversation upon art that I don’t think you have a preview to unless your super engaged with the art world. That was the beginning of a huge transformation for me, beginning to understand the “new world” of art, and the conversation of what I’m making really is. When I left school my best friend was studying at the American University of Rome and she suggested a visit for the summer. I didn’t know what I was going to do, if I was going to drop out of school, I didn’t really know what was going on but what I did know is that I created a really awesome installation for my freshman thesis and I wanted to make it. I spent the summer in Rome and I actually ended up living with this super aristocratic art family by accident but it was important for me to be in conversation with really established artists. Then I came to New York it was very random but I began working with this company called The Living Theatre where I had a four-year residency. I spent six months out of the year performing with the company, doing set design, working on the commune and another six months in my hometown St. Louis working on my studio there and producing a studio show. I think that was the beginning of a rigorous training practice and understanding my studio process and how to organize my business.
That’s a really cool story.
I mean it was fun because a lot of it was going with what my intuition was telling me was the right next step. It wasn’t mapped out. It wasn’t scary it just felt right even when it was uncomfortable at times.
I love your work! It’s so progressive seeing a young woman work with such “masculine” mediums like metal to create stunning sculptures. How very John Chamberlain of you! Can you tell us how you began working with metal and welding?
I’d been painting on rubber for about seven years and was ready to explore sculpture further; I felt like what I was doing had come full circle so I decided to move onto a new medium. I went next door to an iron working factory and asked if I could do a welding apprenticeship with them. Working with metal seemed like a obvious next step given my deeply rooted interest in the abject and derelict.
I mentioned John Chamberlain and his use of metal as his medium. Who are some of your artistic influences?
First and foremost, the action painters from the expressionist movement have been great sources of inspiration, as have thinkers like Rauschenberg and John Cage, and visual artists such as Ann Hamilton, Tara Donovan, Anne Truit, Leonardo Drew, Angel Otero, Hugo McCloud. Minds like Joseph Campbell, Alan Watts, Elon Musk. What I admire and enjoy in all of these people, is that they’re going beyond the parameters they’ve been presented with, and uniquely responding to unforeseen hurdles.
I know being compared to an artist before you can be monotonous. How would you describe your style of work as it relates to you? Is there anything signature in your work that the audience may not observe?
I don’t think that’s annoying, I think that’s complimentary. My work seeks to shift paradigms by revealing unexpected object relationships. What does that mean in practice? For me, it’s pairing materials whose juxtaposition can challenge associations and call attention to the interdependence within the piece. That’s what I’m constantly striving to do in my life, and in the aesthetic of my work.
As an artist whose focus was painting, how do you incorporate the use of paint in your sculptures?
I still consider my pieces paintings. I look at the metal components as color blocks and rearrange them in conjunction with my paint skins. The paint ultimately takes on a sculptural form.
Congratulations on being one of the featured artists in the curated section The Aesthetics of Matter for Volta Show. How did the opportunity arise?
Mickalene Thomas and Racquel Chevremont approached me to be a part of the Deux Femmes Noires debut, “The Aesthetics of Matter,” after seeing my installation “33” during Miami Art Week. My work jived with the concept of collage, which I later learned would inform their curated section at Volta NY. Jenkins Johnson Gallery, who had also been showing my work at PULSE in Miami, helped facilitate the presentation of my project.
What was your creative process for your work showcased?
I gravitated towards a few shapes, colors and images that I knew would create a comprehensive composition. I had decided that I was going to edit ahead of time and put pressure on myself to make decisions early on in my process. For this reason, I selected a monochromatic palette. Over the following months, I continued to look for materials and manipulate them. I experimented with different structures, seeing how they interacted with the paint skins, until I was satisfied with their interaction.
Will you describe obstacles you’ve faced while being a woman and a person of color breaking into the art world? If there were barriers, how did you overcome them?
I don’t know what it’s like to be anything but a woman, or a biracial woman. Any of the obstacles I’ve been facing, have been obstacles within myself. To that point, I mostly focus on removing restrictions that I’ve placed on myself. I think it’s our job as creators to move beyond our own constructs of limitation and that’s what I’m actively working to do.
What are the next few moves for Kennedy Yanko we should look out for?
In terms of my calendar, I’m participating in an all-female sculpture show, SENSES AND PERCEPTION at Mana Contemporary curated by ArtLeadHer on Sunday, April 29 from 12-7 pm. Then for summer 2018 I’m creating a large-scale installation for BRIC Arts Media as part of a group show opening at the end of June. I’ll be spending the end of summer in residence with Galeria Leyendecker preparing for a solo show in the Canary Islands opening early September.
Amazing! Is there anything you’d like to say to our audience about art?
There’s a curious relationship between the elements (metal, marble, wood) and paint skin that asks for further inspection. Instead of immediately looking at something and seeing it for what it is—the immediate context in which people come into it take time to think about everything that makes it what it is and what it was before. It’s like you meet someone for the first time and it takes a bit longer figure out what they are and all the different components of what they are.