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Isabel Yellin, Skin and Bone 5, 2015

What do you think about fabric as a material for art-making? Is its association with craft and female labour an aspect that interests you?

Well, I think within art, the breath of that genre as a base for work is really crucial. Look at David Hammons hanging fabric pieces, or Rauschenberg’s bed, Jessica Stockholder’s installations, or Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Gates in Central Park. Fabric has been used in so many variations because it is such a familiar thing to everyone and it is so malleable. It is, in all its honesty, quite basic.

I find it more interesting that as soon as certain techniques are used with fabric (such as sewing and draping), then it automatically becomes feminine in nature. It is a major part of our visual language, and that is a part of our culture that is still so gendered. Maybe that needs to be broken down or questioned in a more sincere way.

Where do you source your material from? Does this source – and your geographical position within it – influence your work’s final result? Do you consider their visual and tactile qualities and/or refer to the context they are usually associated with?

Most of the materials I use are either bought at fabric shops near me in London and New York, or through the internet. The sex sheets I have used recently are bought online from fetish websites, and then the leatherettes, metallics, and pleated fabrics I have bought in shops near me.

Recently, I have accepted the fact that many of these materials I am drawn towards are connected to a sort of 80s fashion aesthetic (and a pretty tacky one at that) and this is most likely because of the times I played dress up with my mother’s clothes from that time. My mother developed late onset schizophrenia and eventually took her own life. That loss is one of many starting points to my practice, and the tactile connection I feel with fabrics that remind me of my childhood with her are unavoidable. I usually don’t discuss that very much though.

Simultaneously, I really resonate in how tacky they are and I see the transformation of them from the “tacky” to the “elegant” as a questioning of class, and taste, and that social positioning.  There is something quite playful going on that lifts the work out of the melancholic and more into a twist on norms and assumptions.

Can you tell us a bit more about the new direction your work has taken recently? How and why have you started to use this semi-rigid plastic tape? 

The new work is really trying to deal with the physicality of fabric and this idea of it as our second skin. With the last body of work I produced, I was building up textural layers of different materials while thinking about how these materials were all equal different facets of a single point of view. This new work is a simplification of that. The plastic tape is corset boning, and I am using it with a leatherette, so in a sense I am creating a synthetic “skin and bone”. It is as raw as you can get in a sense.

These works immediately become quite human at the same time that they are other. The boning relates back to the structure we build into our clothes both for taste and for function, and how that can be both constraining and at the same time quite provocative.

Is there a sexual connotation to your new work? Your wide use of black latex inevitably brings to mind fetishism. What can you tell us about the contrast between the sexual liberation professed by fetishists and the fact they constrict their bodies in material that constrains and, to some extent, suffocates?

I guess in a way, sex is the most raw and honest experience for us. Then when you get into these fetishistic cultures, you see how certain people need to constrain or contort themselves in order to allow themselves to feel that freedom and vulnerability. It seems like a weirdly reversed liberalism… For me, it’s an observational thing, perhaps voyeuristic in a sense, and again looks at how we categorise things through our experiences and how our actual experiences will never fulfil our fantasies and imaginations. The unattainable desires we all possess.

Also, this material is quite sticky and stretchy and synthetic, seedy if you will, and so to be able to manoeuvre it into something people view as beautiful is a fun play on our original connection to them. What are the limits to these societal constructs and are these materials the background or backbone for all of that?

Photograph of Isabell Yellin at her Studio

Your new work creates soft, organic forms from inorganic materials. What is the significance of this interplay of the natural and the synthetic?

This is where the work is looking at our desires. I hope the struggle of that comes across, how we reconcile reality with fantasy, and how we have, as a society, created so many synthetic versions of natural things (foods, fabrics, construction materials, digital imagery, music, etc. etc.) in order to maximize the actual creation of what we want. People are hungry for satisfaction and pleasure as a means of fulfilment, and these works stem from that ruthlessness to fulfil desires. We seem to be leaning to a completely imagined and synthetic reality that somehow answers all of those questions for us. A false pleasure dome!

Your works are made from surfaces that yield to human touch and register pressure and impressions. In this sense your works offer more potential for connection with the viewer than an oblique, hard, unyielding surface. Could you explain why you make this choice to use impressionable surfaces?

The possibilities with a more malleable surface really allow a play on our traditional notions of painting and sculpture. My work falls in between these two spheres and bounces between notions of surface, mark, and object. As I look at the way we build up perspective through experience, touch is a natural place to begin. Texture and material are a constant, whether as our clothing, the floor below us, the fabric on our sofa, our bedding, to name a few. It is this contact that creates the backdrop to our existence. Similar to light, or noise, or smell, it is a physical and visual backdrop we create for ourselves.

As part of your recent practice, you have started designing patterns and then transferring them onto fabrics. These flat impalpable pieces of cloth, hung on a clothesline, recreate with their patterns an illusionistic sense of depth. Can you tell us more about the conception of this body of work? 

These are a series of digital prints onto silk of layered fabrics and materials I have used in other works recently – things like pleated polyester, and chains, or metallic fabric and mesh. In a way, I see each new body of work I make as a rebuttal to the last work I made and so these prints are a type of inversion of the works I was making only a year ago. By flattening the layers of fabrics and reprinting them onto a different type of a fabric, I hope to challenge our immediate reaction to the materials being printed. Do you still feel the same way when you see a print of mesh, rather than mesh itself?

The material quality of your works tends to awake domestic memories, which however always remain undefined and implicit. Are you inspired by specific personal memories in the process of making your works?  

I see my work as very reflective – I have my own connection to these materials and forms and compositions, but someone else could bring something completely different to it. There’s a duality there between individual and universal assumptions. The formative years, our younger years, are based around the home, and it is a very fragile yet very familiar place to tackle art. These spheres are larger than themselves – they affect how we are everyday, towards others and ourselves.

Your work draws from the visual language of the monochrome, but it has a delicacy, fragility and bodily presence that recalls the sensibility of Post-Minimalist artists such as Eva Hesse. Are you influenced by any art-historical current or figure? 

Well I am very flattered that you would mention Eva Hesse. She is one of the greats. I am constantly looking at different artists, writers, and the like, and I find it really important to research what has come before you and simultaneously what is happening around you. It is hard to pin-point any specific movement or figure that is my everything… In a sense though, when I came over to Amsterdam during my undergraduate years from America and studied at the Rietveld Academie I got exposed to much more of the European canon (especially modernism and responses to Abstract Expressionism in the 20th century), and experienced first-hand artists like Hesse, and Fontana, and Beuys, and more contemporaries like Karla Black and Isa Genzken. That was a really big moment in my work. It was the first time I used fabric and put it out in space. It all got less literal then.

How would you describe the South London art scene? Has this environment influenced your practice in any way? 

I think most of us were drawn here for cheap rent, which hopefully will last for a bit longer! More than that though, it is a diverse community with these little pockets of great groups of artists mulling around. I know that being here has given me an exposure to artists and opinions that I wouldn’t necessarily have experienced as thoroughly if I had stayed in the States, yet at the same time my neighbourhood here feels the most like NYC than any other area of London I have lived in. Go figure. Maybe South London is actually a village of eccentrics and we are all just trying to make sense of things…